It was a cold November day in Buffalo when Officer Cariol Horne responded to a call for a colleague in need of help. What she encountered was a White officer who appeared to be “in a rage” punching a handcuffed Black man in the face repeatedly as other officers stood by.
According to the New York Times, Officer Horne, who is Black, heard the handcuffed man say he could not breathe and saw the White officer put him in a chokehold. At that point, court documents show, she forcibly removed the White officer and began to trade blows with him.
In the altercation’s aftermath, Officer Horne was reassigned, hit with departmental charges and, eventually, fired just one year short of the 20 on the force she needed to collect her full pension. She tried, and failed, more than once to have the decision reversed as unfair.
On Tuesday, in an outcome explicitly informed by the police killing of George Floyd, a state court judge vacated an earlier ruling that affirmed her firing, essentially rewriting the end of her police career, and granting her the back pay and benefits she had previously been denied.
“The legal system can at the very least be a mechanism to help justice prevail, even if belatedly,” the judge, Justice Dennis E. Ward, wrote.
His ruling also invoked the deaths of Floyd and Eric Garner, a Black man from Staten Island whose dying words — “I can’t breathe” — have become a national rallying cry against police brutality.
“The time is always right to do right,” added Justice Ward, of State Supreme Court in Erie County, paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In a statement, Horne, 53, celebrated the decision.
“My vindication comes at a 15-year cost, but what has been gained could not be measured,” she said. “I never wanted another police officer to go through what I had gone through for doing the right thing.”