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Fired Buffalo police officer who contends she stopped another cop from choking a man finds new support — in Chicago

Former Buffalo police Officer Cariol Horne in Chicago on Oct. 22, 2020. Horne said she was fired from the force in 2008 for stopping a fellow officer from choking a suspect. Horne, who has earned support in Chicago for a legal challenge to her case, was honored at an event hosted by Inner-City Muslim Action Network.

Former Buffalo police Officer Cariol Horne in Chicago on Oct. 22, 2020. Horne said she was fired from the force in 2008 for stopping a fellow officer from choking a suspect. Horne, who has earned support in Chicago for a legal challenge to her case, was honored at an event hosted by Inner-City Muslim Action Network. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

The arts collective at the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on Chicago’s Southwest Side supports artists from across the country, encouraging them to inspire change through storytelling.

But the details of Cariol Horne’s story, shared there during a summer of intense national conversation over police abuse, struck an unusually troubling note — Horne has maintained for 15 years that she was fired from the Buffalo Police Department because she broke ranks and saved a man who was being choked by another cop during an arrest.

Her dismissal, when she was just shy of 20 years on the job, cost Horne a full pension.

Now the dramatic story has become part of an unusual musical collaboration between IMAN founder Rami Nashashibi and a Buffalo music artist who wrote a nine-track album, a reflection on race and social justice that calls for spiritual healing and radical changes, such as a law Horne helped pen that makes it mandatory for officers to intervene and stop police abuse.

But Horne’s story has not only been elevated in the music.

At the request of IMAN, powerhouse Chicago law firm Kirkland & Ellis agreed to review her firing and this month launched a court battle to get Horne’s job back, a surprising new legal development in her long-standing effort to fight the decision that ended her career.

Former Buffalo police Officer Cariol Horne poses in Chicago on Oct. 22, 2020. Horne said she was fired from the Buffalo department in 2008 for stopping a fellow officer from choking a suspect.

Former Buffalo police Officer Cariol Horne poses in Chicago on Oct. 22, 2020. Horne said she was fired from the Buffalo department in 2008 for stopping a fellow officer from choking a suspect. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

A legal team that includes a former White House chief legal counsel to President Barack Obama filed a motion in New York state court seeking to vacate Horne’s firing, arguing it was “in the interest of justice” to do so. The filing cited recent examples of arrests that led to controversial deaths blamed on asphyxia, including those of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, and George Floyd in Minneapolis, which happened as fellow officers looked on.

“For doing precisely what we expect and hope from our law enforcement officers — upholding the law and protecting life — Ms. Horne was assaulted by her colleague, and her employment was terminated,” the lawsuit reads. “ ... In Buffalo, in America, and in the world the public is now recognizing the cost of not having officers like Ms. Horne who are willing to intervene.”

The new legal battle has yet to play out in court, but on Thursday evening Horne was at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History in a dimly lit rotunda for the official listening party for the album, which includes the single “Mama Please,” a song about police violence and oppression that spotlights Horne’s story.

Horne, 52, sat listening in the center of the room with the producers, headphones rimmed in blue light snug on her head of white hair. She rocked gently, her head down as she listened to the lyrics.

Mama, please. I can’t breathe. Get these demons off of me.

Later, a video for the song, which features Horne and is dedicated to her, was played for the audience.

“The last 15 years has been an uphill battle,” Horne told the Tribune in a recent interview. “And now that IMAN has come into my life, I feel like I am about to reach the top. It feels liberating.”

While IMAN’s work focuses mainly on helping people released from jail and prison make a successful transition, community organizing is a key component of their work.

They’ve woven the arts into that mission, including by maintaining a national roster of artists who gather for retreats, quarterly conference calls and are eligible for an annual fellowship.

Drea D’Nur, who is from Buffalo and is one of the rostered artists, knew Horne’s story, and shared it with Nashashibi earlier in the year while they were producing the album, “This Love Thing,” which aimed to explore the pain so many communities worldwide were experiencing.

Vocalists, emcees, spoken-word poets and musicians — many of them longtime IMAN artists — took part, including Louisville community activist and musician Jecorey Arthur, who was recently elected to the city council in that city, where the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by police has sparked protests and calls for reform.

Former Buffalo police Officer Cariol Horne, center, speaks with Inner-City Muslim Action Network Executive Director Rami Nashashibi during an event in Chicago on Oct. 22, 2020.

Former Buffalo police Officer Cariol Horne, center, speaks with Inner-City Muslim Action Network Executive Director Rami Nashashibi during an event in Chicago on Oct. 22, 2020. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)

“There is this intersection between art and social justice,” D’Nur said. “(Singer-songwriter) Nina Simone said an artist’s duty is to reflect the times."

Nashashibi was moved, and then got to know Horne personally on trips to Buffalo this summer to work with D’Nur on the album. He attended protests with her just as her case had taken on new life in the wake of the Floyd case, and found Horne and her story genuine. He decided to see if there were any legal options available to help her.

“I have been doing this work 25 years,” he said. “She is not given to hyperbole. She is not a woman that condemns all police officers, she is a woman who tells her story with profound believability because she just shows up. Every instinct I have about Cariol has guided me to what I think others have been guided to, which is (she is) an extraordinary mother, grandmother, beautiful person who has been speaking her truth."

Nashashibi was not deterred, either, by the number of times Horne’s story had been rejected by fellow officers and the courts, saying recent cases — including in Chicago — have shown that official police versions of events are not always accurate.

Nashashibi was already speaking to Kirkland & Ellis about the potential of opening a legal clinic in the community when he decided to call and tell them about Horne.

The firm agreed to take her case in June, along with a team that includes attorneys from Harvard Law School.

Neil Eggleston, a partner at Kirkland who served as White House legal counsel under Obama and oversaw the administration’s major task force on police reform, said the understanding of policing after Floyd and similar cases now dictates that officers like Horne should be celebrated — not silenced.

“I think in some ways the fundamental aspect of the recommendations from the task force were to emphasize that police officers are protectors of the public and not adversaries of the public,” Eggleston said. “Cariol presents a classic example of that, which was she was acting to protect the public. And arrestees have as much right to be protected.”

Exactly what happened on Nov. 1, 2006, has been the subject of intense debate and several legal probes over the years.

Everyone agrees Buffalo officers were trying to remove a suspect from a home when Horne arrived.

According to the new lawsuit filed by her attorneys, Horne, who is Black, saw Officer Gregory Kwiatkowski, who is white, punch the handcuffed suspect, Neal Mack, who is also Black. Then, as Mack was being removed from his home, Kwiatkowski pulled him down and put him in a chokehold, prompting Horne to tell him to stop and to physically remove his arm from Mack’s neck, the lawsuit alleges.

Kwiatkowski has acknowledged he put Mack in a “bear hug headlock,” according to the lawsuit and court documents. But the officer said it was Horne who physically attacked him by jumping on him — something Horne denies.

“Ms. Horne told Mr. Kwiatkowski that he was choking Mr. Mack, but Mr. Kwiatkowski did not stop,” the lawsuit reads. “... Horne then intervened to prevent Mr. Kwiatkowski from inflicting serious harm or death.”

According to the filing, Kwiatkowski then struck Horne, causing enough damage that she required dental surgery.

After the department filed disciplinary charges against her, Horne opted not to accept an offer of a short suspension, and also demanded that her hearing be public.

“I was not going to take a suspension for something I didn’t do,” she told the Tribune, explaining the decision.

In 2008, an independent hearing officer sustained 11 department charges against Horne, including that she interfered with the arrest and failed to assist Kwiatkowski.

Horne challenged her firing in court, but failed.

While the filing from her new Chicago lawyers does not bring new evidence, it argues that key witness statements do not dispute the story Horne has been telling from the start: that she intervened to protect Mack.

“Both accounts converge on a description of a violent arrest, involving a chokehold, during which Ms. Horne intervened with reasonable acts calculated to prevent a death by chokehold," the lawsuit reads. "While the accounts differ on the extent of force Ms. Horne used to remove Mr. Kwiatkowski ... all accounts include his use of a chokehold and another officer’s intervention.”

The lawsuit also notes that the charges against Mack, the suspect, were later dropped, and that Kwiatkowski, who resigned from the force in 2011, was later convicted in an unrelated federal civil rights case in which he slammed the heads of four Black teens into a squad car.

Contacted by the Tribune, Kwiatkowski pointed to several decisions and rulings that failed to confirm Horne’s version of events, including a defamation suit that he won against her, which Horne said was because she was not notified of the court date and didn’t appear. Kwiatkowski has said a physically combative Mack had reached for his service weapon once they were outside the house, but he never put him in a chokehold.

A spokesman for the city of Buffalo declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Horne, meanwhile, lost her full pension because she had been working for the department 19 years — just one shy of eligibility. Reversing the firing would restore the pension, her attorneys said.

In the years since her dismissal, Horne has made ends meet by driving a truck and for Uber. She raised five children and has 14 grandchildren.

And she was an activist before the country had heard of Floyd or Eric Garner, who died in 2014 when he was placed in a chokehold during an arrest in New York City. She was trying to make sure her own story was not ignored, but also raising awareness of police brutality.

“I never gave up,” Horne said. “So long as the police are killing people, I had reason to speak back up.”

She has traveled around the Northeast to talk about Cariol’s Law, which she wrote in 2016. The law requires that officers intervene to stop colleagues from committing brutality — and demands that departments protect those who do.

The city of Buffalo already had a policy in place requiring that officers intervene, but its city council in September passed a version of Horne’s law. The city’s mayor has yet to sign it, something that Horne and her supporters are demanding.

As Thursday’s musical event in Chicago ended, the website for Cariol’s Law flashed on the large video screen in the rotunda.

Horne quickly moved around the room to find D’Nur and Nashashibi, and the three stood, 6 feet apart, for a photo in the glow of the screen.

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