One of the off-duty police officers working security at Molly’s Pub on May 11 said in court last week that he and others moved unconscious victim William C. Sager Jr. outside – though Sager had just been thrown down a flight of stairs – so he wouldn’t be trampled by other patrons and because fresh air might do him good.
But after Adam E. O’Shei gave that account last Friday, medical technicians and retired police personnel told The Buffalo News that picking up and moving a victim of a serious fall before medical help arrives is the wrong thing to do, and most police officers should know this.
Sager, 28, never regained consciousness and remains in a coma at Erie County Medical Center.
“You don’t move the person at all ... you just don’t do it,” said a career medical responder who asked that his name not be used to avoid being drawn into a disagreement with police. The spine can be a hair’s breadth away from breaking, he explained, and moving a patient after a serious fall puts him at risk of paralysis.
Treatment protocols published by the state Health Department’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services say spinal injuries should be suspected when a person suffers a significant fall, and the victim should be immobilized before being moved.
“If there is any doubt, suspect that a spine injury is present!” the protocols state in capital letters.
There is nothing about placing the victim in handcuffs and hauling him outside for air, as another off-duty officer, Robert E. Eloff, did with Sager on the morning of May 11.
As it turned out, Sager did not suffer a severe spinal injury. He suffered a severe brain injury as his head took the brunt of the impact. A doctor told his family that there are no marks on Sager to indicate he tried to break his fall.
O’Shei, who since has been suspended from the force, testified that Sager was moved because he and Eloff were concerned that he would be at risk of further injury if stepped on by patrons exiting Molly’s Pub. A prosecutor highlighted those concerns during the felony hearing for bar manager Jeffrey J. Basil, 35, who is accused of assaulting Sager.
Did the off-duty officers, then, rightly move the victim to protect him from further injury?
Roger Krieger calls that argument ludicrous – akin to moving a severely injured accident victim before medical personnel arrive so as not to disrupt traffic.
Krieger, who retired as the assistant chief of operations for the Erie County Sheriff’s Office in 1988 and went on to serve as police chief in the Florida community of Crystal River, said the officers had safer options.
“Any time you have an injured victim, you secure the scene and wait for medical personnel. That means redirecting people to other entrances and exits, which I am sure they have because of fire regulations,” he said of Molly’s, a stand-alone structure with several exits at 3199 Main St.
“Secondly, how long are we talking about? Medical help should have been there in minutes if they were called,” Krieger said, adding, “I have tied up many a roadway awaiting medical staff.’’
He added: “A first-year rookie would know better than to move an injured person, especially one that was just pushed or fell down a flight of stairs.”
A lawyer for O’Shei, Joseph M. LaTona, did not respond to a News telephone inquiry Wednesday. Nor did Kevin M. Kennedy, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association.
O’Shei and Eloff were moonlighting for Basil as they provided security outside Molly’s Pub on the night of May 10 and the morning of May 11. After their security shifts ended, Basil invited them to join him for drinks at the bar. Shortly before 2 a.m., Basil gave Sager, an Air National Guardsman, the push that sent him down the stairs, O’Shei testified.
The Buffalo Police Department was unusual among local agencies in that it would let its officers moonlight for bars – even bars run by felons such as Basil – though state law prohibits police in New York from having any interest in the making or the sale of alcohol. But for years, Buffalo’s top police officials reasoned that officers could work off-duty for bar owners if they provided security only outside the establishments.
That’s what was happening at Molly’s Pub. But the chain of events that occurred at about 2 a.m. May 11 highlights the conflicts that arise when police officers provide private security in a volatile bar setting. Do they work for the bar owner, or do they protect the public?
Consider Eloff’s movements after the attack. He handcuffed Sager, not Basil. Police sources say he was seen with Basil as the bar manager approached the office housing the controls for Molly’s surveillance equipment. Moments later, police sources say, the bar’s internal video recording went dark, and Basil was trying to dispose of the equipment in a trash bin outside. It was recovered.
The State Liquor Authority has since repeated that it is illegal for off-duty police officers to be paid by bar owners, and Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda has banned the practice, a move he had been considering.
Eloff, when asked in the felony hearing about his role at Molly’s Pub, asserted his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.