Buffalo cops 'not surprised' retired officer gave his life saving others

"An officer takes an oath," said one Buffalo officer in the wake of a mass shooting. "It doesn't stop when you retire"

By Sandra Tan
The Buffalo News, N.Y.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Aaron Salter may have retired from the Buffalo Police Department in 2018, but his colleagues would say he never stopped being a cop. And that's how he should be remembered.

Salter, 55, was the security guard at the Tops Market on Saturday when the gunman began killing one person after another. He didn't hesitate to pull out his weapon and confront the shooter even though it was obvious that the man was protected with heavy tactical gear and better armed.

Even though at least one of Salter's bullets struck the gunman, the assailant's armor plating protected him, allowing him to return Salter's fire and kill him.

"It's not surprising to me, at all, that he did what he did yesterday," said retired Lt. Steven Malkowski, who previously served as Salter's supervisor when they both worked in the Buffalo Police Department's Traffic Division. "Even though you leave the job, the job doesn't leave you. I know he was thinking about, something was going wrong here. People's lives were in danger, and he was probably the only person who was in there that could help and save people."

Police Officer Juan Phillips, who knew Salter as a friend and former colleague, recalled Salter came from a long established family, with many who were artists. Salter himself was a musician who played bass, he said.

Like Malkowski, Phillips wasn't surprised at Salter's bravery.

"An officer takes an oath," he said. "It just doesn't stop when you are retired. It doesn't stop at the end of an eight-hour tour."

Salter, a family man with children, joined the police academy shortly out of high school and had been with the Buffalo Police Department since the late 1980s, Malkowski said.

Outgoing and friendly, Salter worked in the Traffic Control Division for years, working with other officers to handle traffic at special events, like at KeyBank Center or the Bisons stadium. He was also part of the team who would work special events like races and charity walks.

Salter also may have worked as a substitute teacher for several years in Buffalo Public Schools. He is listed as an educator with Buffalo Public Schools from 2008 to 2011.

It's also possible that he worked at the Tops supermarket as an off-duty security guard for many years, because it's common for police officers to take side jobs even while they are active-duty officers.

What his friends and colleagues remember most about Salter is his interest as an amateur scientist to create the world's first car engine that could run on water. The engine would break down water, separating the oxygen and hydrogen molecules so that they would be used to power the vehicle. He even had detailed drawings of his invention.

"He was very passionate about this," Malkowski said. "He was trying to contact people who could help him with production on this. I'm not a mechanical guy, but he had it all laid out."

Phillips had similar recollections about Salter's plans to create an alternative to gasoline.

"We would talk about how the garage was converted into a semi-lab," Phillips said.

While Salter may have considered himself a research scientist at heart, to everyone else, he was simply a good cop.

"Aaron was never a bad guy," Malkowski said. "You hear stories about some coppers. They're not the best police officers, but I never heard anything like that about Aaron."

Buffalo Police Chief Joseph Gramaglia hailed Salter a hero Saturday for his intervention and called him a "beloved security guard" by the people who knew him at the store.

Malkowski said that even though Salter wasn't technically a cop on the day he confronted the gunman, he behaved like a police officer in every way that mattered and should receive the same kind of formal funeral as any active officer killed in the line of duty.

He said he doesn't know if this is legally allowable, but he has reached out to multiple city leaders to see whether Salter would be retroactively reinstated as an officer for one day so that he gets the recognition he deserves.

Buffalo Common Council Member David Rivera, who retired as a Buffalo police officer after 25 years in 2007, pledged to look into the matter when contacted by The Buffalo News. That will require contacting not just the city's Law Department, but the State Comptroller's Office, which handles police pensions.

"He should have all the honors," Rivera said. "If it's allowed and the council is willing, I can't imagine there's any circumstances where we wouldn't do it."

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