The Force Report is a continuing investigation of police use of force in New Jersey. Read more from the series or search your local police department and officers in the full the database.
In the early hours of Feb. 28, 2012, Julius Adams left the Trump Plaza Casino and started down the Boardwalk Hall tunnel in Atlantic City. After a night of gambling and drinking, it was time to go home.
A few blocks away from the casino, he found himself surrounded by a group of Atlantic City police officers.
Adams claims in a federal lawsuit he was detained, beaten and held at gunpoint by the officers. While he was handcuffed, he alleges, officers sicced two police dogs on him.
As Adams bled profusely and begged for medical treatment, one officer allegedly said, “Let that n—– bleed out.”
Adams claims the attack, which left him “incapacitated” for a month and with permanent injuries, was payback for an internal affairs complaint he filed a year earlier against an officer. He filed another complaint after the 2012 incident, but the department said his claim of excessive force was unfounded. Adams eventually pleaded guilty to inflicting harm on a law enforcement animal.
The incident, which will be at the center of a civil trial set for January, came as Atlantic City’s use-of-force rate was soaring above every department in the state.
Atlantic City police officers used painful holds, punches, kicks and other types of force to subdue suspects 2,854 times from 2012 through 2016, according to The Force Report, a 16-month investigation by NJ Advance Media for NJ.com. The investigation found New Jersey’s system for tracking police force is broken, with no statewide collection or analysis of data, little oversight by state officials and no standard practices among local departments.
The news organization collected 72,677 use-of-force reports covering every municipal police department and the State Police. The results, available at NJ.com/force, revealed police across the state used force in about 3 percent of all arrests. Officers in Atlantic City, where 40 percent of residents live in poverty amid the 30 million visitors to its casinos and beaches every year, used force in 11 percent of arrests.
The department’s total number of uses of force dropped significantly in 2014 to 529, when a report from the state Attorney General’s Office found a small number of officers accounted for an unusually high number of incidents. The report was initiated by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office after several high-profile incidents of force, including a K-9 attack on a young man.
An NJ Advance Media review of lawsuits, court documents and depositions of police officials, as well as interviews with a half-dozen current and former officers, points to a department that often seemed indifferent to officers with violent tendencies, leaving them on the street without repercussions. Many were promoted or appointed to prestigious roles.
“The message (police officers) weren’t getting is whether anyone cared,” said Jennifer Bonjean, an attorney who has represented clients in four excessive force lawsuits against Atlantic City. “They certainly knew they were beating the f— out of people.”
When the trove of public records is reviewed alongside data in The Force Report, a series of numbers reveals how much more inclined officers in Atlantic City are to use force. Among the findings:
- About 11 percent of officers used force 21 or more times, more than five times the statewide average. Only 252 officers in the entire state used that much force. So Atlantic City, with about 1.4 percent of all New Jersey officers on its force, accounted for 14 percent of the officers statewide using force the most.
- One Atlantic City officer, Scott Sendrick, reported using force 62 times in five years, the most in the state during that period among 17,369 officers who appear in The Force Report.
- Between 2007 and 2014, the department faced 570 excessive force complaints. Only two — or about 0.35 percent — were sustained by department investigators. The average number of cases found to have merit for departments the size of Atlantic City is 12 percent, according to U.S. Justice Department data.
- Atlantic City officers have been named in at least 24 excessive force lawsuits over the past decade, costing taxpayers nearly $6.5 million. And one officer named in excessive force lawsuits that resulted in $4.5 million in settlements never had an excessive force complaint against him sustained and never was disciplined until he was arrested by federal authorities in October.
How did these numbers climb so high? Why did no one do anything to bring officers back in line? Who was keeping track?
The only insight into what top authorities were thinking is found in depositions filed when the department was sued.
The police chief declined to comment for this story. So did police union president Matt Rogers. The city’s mayor did not return messages seeking comment. Neither did city council president Marty Small. No one in a position of authority within the department or city would comment on these findings.
A city like no other
Atlantic City is a town of dreams and of destitution. Walk a block or two from the gleaming, sky-high casinos lining the shoreline and you find a city wracked with poverty.
In a state where about 10.7 percent of residents live below the poverty line, 40.6 percent of Atlantic City residents do the same, according to the Census Bureau.
The poverty level, which has climbed in recent years, coincides with an economic collapse in the city. In 2006, gross gaming revenues in the city’s casino declined “significantly,” according to a 2018 report conducted by special counsel Jim Johnson on behalf of Gov. Phil Murphy.
The city’s taxable base, propped up mostly by casinos, plummeted from $20.6 billion in 2010 to $7.3 billion in 2015. The city narrowly avoided going bankrupt in 2015 by relying on a significant increase in state aid and deferring payment to the state’s pension and health benefit plans, according to the Johnson report.
By 2016, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill to place crumbling cities under state supervision until they are stabilized.
Today, Atlantic City finds itself in an increasingly complex situation. How does the city help residents while also revving up the casino industry, its economic engine?
While politicians see promise with two recent casino openings and Stockton University’s new campus, a walk down Atlantic City’s ravaged business district and through its hidden neighborhoods shows much of the city still waiting for a rebirth.
Add in millions of tourists a year who can make or lose a fortune at any minute of the day and you’ve got a combination of factors that makes Atlantic City like no other town in New Jersey, and few in the United States.
“Policing in Atlantic City is unlike any other city,” said a confidential report prepared by the attorney general’s Office of Law Enforcement Professional Standards. “In addition to the concerns of most urban police departments – poverty, drugs, prostitution, property crime, and violence – the Atlantic City Police Department is also required to service the needs of a tourist population that eclipses the city’s total population.”
While that 2014 report on the department’s force rate explained the challenges facing officers in Atlantic City, it didn’t say whether the patterns it studied were inappropriate. That was up to the department to decide.
Change in tactics
The “watershed moment” for the Atlantic City police department came after a 2013 K-9 attack and the ensuing excessive force lawsuit the city settled for $3 million, said former Sgt. Steve Cupani, who retired in 2014.
The settlement pressured officers to scale back aggressive tactics, Cupani said. It also played a role in the attorney general’s office analyzing the department’s use of force.
The year of that attack, Atlantic City officers were on track to use force more than any other in the five years for which NJ Advance Media collected data. The number of incidents where police reported using force on suspects peaked at 825, declining steadily to 318 in 2016.
But during that time, the number of arrests the department reported to the FBI also dropped 55 percent. While the overall number of uses of force plummeted, the rate at which officers used it didn’t change much. In 2013, officers reported using force 825 times and used it in about 13.6 percent of all arrests. In 2016, overall uses of force fell to 316, but because of the drop in arrests, officers still used force in 11.1 percent of all arrests.
Even at its lowest, Atlantic City officers were still using force at a rate three times the state average. The department used force at the second-highest rate of any municipal police department in the state, behind only Maplewood.
The department’s use-of-force rate doesn’t tell the full story, but it’s a starting point, said Matthew J. Hickman, an associate professor and chair of Seattle University’s Criminal Justice Department. He described the resort town’s numbers as striking.
“These figures are useful and meaningful,” he said. “The shining light at the end of the tunnel is that it will push police agencies and the state to start collecting better data.”
Police officials credited the decline in force incidents to a “revamped” internal affairs unit and the use of body cameras, two changes that occurred when Henry White became the department’s chief in 2013, according to a deposition. White had been deputy chief for eight years.
“The things that I have put together for the entire department has protected our citizens of Atlantic City from rogue (officers) and misconduct from the Atlantic City police department,” White said in the 2016 deposition.
One change was a functioning electronic early warning system. Though New Jersey doesn’t require police departments to have a system to track use-of-force trends, a national accreditation process does.
The department in 2010 and 2012 revised its internal affairs policy during the accreditation process to say it used an electronic early warning system, but it didn’t implement it until 2015. The now-up-and-running system has a “process in place that involves the officer, his chain of command, our internal affairs, professional standards, to address and to look at trends,” White said in his deposition.
Though the department failed to swiftly implement the electronic system, White said in his deposition, it previously used a manual early warning system, filling out index cards and placing them in a file. Yet multiple officers said under oath they weren’t notified when they triggered a system meant to alert bosses to potential problems. Not until years later did they learn they were flagged — repeatedly.
Officer Michael Oldroyd used force 50 times from 2012 to 2016. But he wasn’t told about his high rate until February 2014, he said in a deposition. His command staff told him they did not give credence to internal affairs complaints against him and to continue policing how he was. Oldroyd tallied 91 internal affairs complaints — 46 of which were for excessive force — in a 14-year stretch on the job.
White said in the 2016 deposition he didn’t “focus in on individual officers,” instead focusing on the department as a whole in an effort to “get the trust back from the community.”
That approach is “completely incorrect as management practice,” said Jon Shane, a retired Newark police captain who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and was previously hired by a plaintiff in an excessive force lawsuit to analyze Atlantic City’s internal affairs unit.
Deeply embedded troubles
Atlantic City’s problems aren’t new.
An NJ Advance Media review of court files and other public records found officers over the past two decades have been criminally accused of assault, stealing from suspects and in one case dognapping a puppy.
Because of a protect-the-shield mentality, the department gets “away with abuse of power, misconduct, domestic violence, failure on drug test and everything else,” a police officer wrote to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal earlier this year. NJ Advance Media obtained a copy of the letter from a community activist.
“It’s out of control,” the officer wrote.
Richard Rivera, a former West New York officer and police expert who was hired by the plaintiff in an excessive force lawsuit to review Atlantic City’s police practices, said a good internal affairs unit serves as the “eyes and ears” of a department, identifying officers with performance troubles before they bubble over into excessive force complaints and lawsuits.
For years, Rivera said, Atlantic City’s internal investigators purposefully ignored problems, finding merit in less than 0.5 percent of excessive force complaints.
In one lawsuit, Rivera examined 83 internal affairs files of Sgt. Frank Timek and officer Sterling Wheaten, and determined investigators had “crafted their investigation and findings” to be more favorable to officers.
Timek, a nearly 20-year veteran, accumulated 63 internal affairs complaints — 43 of them for excessive force — between May 2001 and August 2014, as well as being named in 11 excessive force lawsuits, according to court documents. During this time period, he became a K-9 handler and then was promoted to sergeant, just three months after he allegedly sicced his dog on Julius Adams.
Wheaten, who accumulated 33 internal affairs complaints — 23 of which were for excessive force or assault — in the first seven years of his career, never had a complaint sustained by internal affairs investigators. Excessive force lawsuits naming him have cost taxpayers $4.5 million, yet he was never disciplined by the police department until federal authorities arrested him in October for his role in the 2013 K-9 attack that left a Linwood man with 200 stitches. (Atlantic City and the officers involved in those lawsuits never admitted wrongdoing.)
“If somebody goes to prison, whether state prison or federal prison, they are going to have Internal Affairs to thank for that for not correcting these things earlier,” Shane said.
After being indicted for his role in the attack, Wheaten is now suspended without pay.
“The culture created by Atlantic City’s insufficient policies, procedures, and customs actively endangered the community,” Rivera wrote in his analysis of an excessive force lawsuit that ended in a $225,000 settlement. “Officers Timek and Wheaten believed they could assault citizens with impunity as a result.”
Rivera found internal affairs investigators frequently failed to follow attorney general guidelines. In 21 cases of excessive force complaints naming Wheaten, he was never interviewed by internal investigators.
“Internal affairs only answers to the police chief,” Rivera said recently. “So at the end of that process, whatever the investigation is, how flawed those investigations are, how defective they are and how those investigators are not doing their job, they are directly answerable to the police chief. It is a lack of leadership.”
During a 2016 deposition, White said that the internal affairs numbers “didn’t look good.” Still, he said, he had not investigated why so few cases were substantiated and acknowledged the low sustain rate may have led the public to believe the police department was not taking internal affairs complaints seriously.
Multiple police experts and attorneys said one reason for Atlantic City’s dramatic drop in excessive force complaints could be attributed to the 0.35 percent sustain rate from 2007 to 2014. Residents don’t want to file complaints if they don’t think they’ll be taken seriously, they said.
In a lawsuit filed in October against White and the police department, former deputy chief William Mazur alleges he was not put in charge of the internal affairs unit because White wanted to be able to “continue to influence the decision-making of the internal affairs division to protect his friends, and political allies on the police force.”
“It is not an internal affairs that is searching for truth,” said one officer, who requested anonymity because the department policy forbids officers from speaking publicly. “It is an internal affairs that is trying protect a class of dirty officers within the system.”
Joe Atmonavage, Dec 31, 2018, nj.com, “Aggressive cops are ‘out of control’ in this N.J. city, insiders say, costing taxpayers millions“, https://www.nj.com/news/2018/12/this-police-force-is-one-of-the-most-aggressive-in-nj-its-out-of-control-cop-says.html