Harassment of whistleblowers leads to million-dollar bills for taxpayers.
Andrew Ford and Kala Kachmar, Asbury Park Press, Jan. 22, 2018 | Updated 2:43 p.m. ET Jan. 18, 2019
This is a part of “Protecting The Shield” – a two-year Asbury Park Press investigation that probes gaps in police accountability, which can harm citizens and cost New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars.Read our complete investigative series
When police officers stand up to wrongdoing by other cops, the results can lead to upstanding officers being punished by their departments for daring to break what appellate judges in one case recently called the “‘blue wall’ of police silence.”
In turn, whistleblowing officers and those subject to internal harassment seek relief through lawsuits which can prompt towns to make secret settlements that can add up to more than $1 million. Some of the most significant whistleblower payouts identified by the Asbury Park Press include:
$650,000 — Egg Harbor Township settled with Patrolman Christopher Mozitis, who claimed that after he reported officers cheating on an exam to try out for sergeant, he was retaliated against. Mozitis claimed he was threatened with assault, including the claim another officer would “kick” Mozitis’ “ass” when Mozitis pointed out that the other officer wasn’t pursuing Mozitis’ grievance. The township did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement.
$660,000 — The amount was awarded through two settlements of $330,000 in 2014 to two female Neptune Township officers who alleged sexual harassment. One of the officers, Elena Gonzalez, citing continued harassment, resigned in 2017 in front of the Township Committee after airing her grievances. The township has denied any wrongdoing. You can see her emotional statement in the video below.
Elena Gonzalez resigned from the police department, after saying she was repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination. Austin Bogues, staff
Retaliation “sends a chilling message to the rest of the agency: toe the line and keep your mouth shut,” said former police officer and internal affairs expert Richard Rivera.
Rivera was fired from the West New York Police Department shortly after going undercover for the FBI in the mid-1990s. He helped expose officers who were taking kickbacks to protect illegal gambling operations, prostitution rings and other rackets. He recounts his undercover work in the video with this story.
He sued, claiming retaliation, and was reinstated long enough to retire. He also received a $650,000 settlement.
Until recently in Tinton Falls, the borough government and the police department were headed by members of two tightly-knit families. In a pair of lawsuits, the town paid a total of $1.1 million to two police officers in 2015 and 2017 who claimed they were harassed after blowing the whistle on a fellow cop they accused of “illegally” siphoning municipal water for his home. One complaining officer resigned.The other remains a Tinton Falls police officer.
A panel of appellate judges who reviewed the case said some of the conduct alleged in one of the lawsuits “smacks of perpetrating an illegal police cover up.”
Gerald Turning Sr., who was police chief at the time of the 2008 claim, served as mayor of the borough when the settlements were made.
Richard Rivera, a former West New York officer, went undercover with the FBI in the mid-1990s to help weed out corruption among the department’s cops. Now, after being pushed out of his job, he’s an internal affairs expert. Ryan Ross | Kala Kachmar
The conduct of his son, Sgt. Gerald Turning Jr., was described by the appellate judges as allegedly being part of the “cover up.” Turning Jr. was later promoted to captain.
Sgt. David Scrivanic, who was alleged to have “diverted” the municipal water, was also later promoted to captain. No criminal charges were filed.
Vito Perillo wins Tinton Falls mayoral election at age 93 Brian Johnston
Vito Perillo, a 93-year-old World War II vet, outraged by news of the settlements, campaigned against Turning, defeating him 53 percent to 47 percent. After the victory, Perillo spoke against nepotism and took a stand for government transparency. You can watch the 93-year-old victor tell his story in the video above.
“I think the public should know what’s going on, period,” he said. “If there’s something important that’s going on, they should be aware of it.”
Asbury Park Press reporters dug into more than 30,000 public records for two years to produce “Protecting The Shield.” These same journalists report daily as watchdogs in the public interest: examining tax spending, exposing wrongdoing, highlighting advances and often inspiring change that makes New Jersey a better place to live. Follow their work at APP.com and support local journalism today.
(CNN) — On September 1, 2016, police in Bordentown, New Jersey, got a call from the manager at a local Ramada Inn. The manager told the dispatcher two teenagers had used the pool without paying for a room. This rather mundane call set in motion a chain of events that led to the chief of police being charged with a federal hate crime, the first case of its kind in at least ten years.
When officers arrived, they located Timothy Stroye, 18, and a 16-year-old female. Stroye was still wet from the pool, clad in white shorts. A confrontation ensued, and the officers called for backup.
A shouting match escalated into a physical struggle. A lieutenant, who had a preexisting back problem, was injured. Stroye got pepper sprayed and handcuffed. The teenage girl’s aunt, who witnessed the encounter, screamed at the officers.
What happened next is hazy. As police walked Stroye out of the hotel, an officer allegedly slammed the teen’s head against a metal door jam. At the police station, Stroye told an EMS technician he was having an asthma attack, and he feared he had suffered a concussion. He chose not to go to the hospital, however, to avoid delays in processing his case.
According to federal prosecutors, the officer who hit Stroye was Bordentown Township police chief and business administrator, Frank Nucera Jr. They alleged the assault was driven by bias against African-Americans.
That’s a step federal prosecutors opted not to take in higher profile cases of people who were killed by law enforcement. The deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Freddie Gray in Baltimore sparked massive protests and riots in 2014 and 2015. The officers involved in those encounters were not charged in federal court.
It is difficult to bring criminal deprivation of rights indictments against law enforcement because police have wide latitude to use force if they believe an individual is threatening public safety, whether the person is armed or not. With Nucera, prosecutors felt they had sufficient proof to convince a jury the now-retired chief used unreasonable force and he was motivated by racial bias.
Nucera’s defense attorney, Rocco Cipparone Jr., said his client is innocent of the assault and one of the other officers caused the teen’s head injury.
Stroye himself said several officers struck him. He told the FBI he was handcuffed while lying on the ground. One officer pressed his knee against Stroye’s face and another pressed his knee against the teen’s back, according to notes from an FBI interview. After the police brought Stroye to his feet, he asked for their names. They did not respond although Stroye remembered one was referred to as “chief.” His vision was blurry from pepper spray.
While the precise details of the altercation may never be known, the chief’s reaction to Stroye’s arrest was captured in audio recordings. Sergeant Nathan Roohr had been secretly making tapes for months because he felt Nucera created a toxic work environment, and he found the chief’s remarks about minorities offensive. The FBI investigation revealed that at least nine other officers were using hidden recording devices, as they reportedly shared Roorh’s concerns.
Last Tuesday, a federal judge in Camden, New Jersey denied a defense motion to dismiss the indictment, clearing the way for the retired chief to go on trial.
“I’m tired of them, man”
The Nucera tapes contain profane rants against African-Americans, Hispanics and Muslims. Nucera repeatedly referred to Stroye using the N-word.
The chief complained the Ramada call was a waste of resources caused by “six unruly f—–g n—–s,” according to court documents.
He described the struggle to handcuff Stroye: ” F—–g little f—–g n—–. He was built pretty stocky though. When you put cocoa butter on that skin and come out of the pool, it’s like trying to hold down a f—–g snake.”
In another recording, Nucera said, “I’m f—–g tired of them, man. I’ll tell you what, it’s gonna get to the point where I could shoot one of these m—-rf—–s. And that n—-r b—h lady, she almost got it.”
Roohr gave the FBI 81 audio recordings of Nucera made between 2015 and 2016. Agents then provided the sergeant with devices to continue taping the chief.
He became a government witness, wired for sound and directed by the FBI to discuss Stroye’s arrest with the chief. Roohr repeatedly said he was worried about a potential civil lawsuit for excessive force in an effort to elicit a confession from the chief.
“He’s a nut”
Nucera’s comments in court records are peppered with references to President Donald Trump. The Ramada incident took place during the final weeks of the 2016 campaign.
One officer told the FBI Nucera predicted “they” (African-Americans) would be unhappy if Trump got elected because he would take away “free rides.”
In a recording made on the day of Stroye’s arrest, Nucera said, “Donald Trump is the last hope for white people, ’cause Hillary will give it to all the minorities to get a vote. That’s the truth! I’m telling you. I think about that more and more. He is, he’s the last hope for the f—–g white people cause she’s too (UI). All the seven mothers that were at the Democratic National Convention saying, ‘The police killed my kids.'”
Still, Nucera questioned Trump’s temperament.
“He’s a nut,” Nucera said, adding that he wasn’t planning to vote.
Nucera announced his retirement in January 2017. Less than a year after he stepped down, he was indicted with hate crime assault, deprivation of rights under color of law and making false statements.
The retired chief pleaded not guilty and was released on $500,000 bail. Cipparone, Nucera’s attorney, declined to answer a list of detailed questions submitted by CNN.
The Nucera case is unique because hate crimes are usually prosecuted by local authorities rather than the federal government, said Rebecca Sturtevant, a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The retired chief appears to be the first cop in at least a decade to be charged with a federal hate crime in conjunction with his job as a law enforcement officer, according to a search of the Pacer case locator database and Justice Department sources.
Stroye pleaded guilty to third degree assault of a police officer in state court. The judge sentenced him to six months in county jail. He was released on probation on July 15, 2017, according to the Burlington County court clerk. Stroye is currently incarcerated at the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania, where he is being held pending trial on charges of writing a worthless check and access device fraud. This year, he has also pled guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia, public drunkenness and use of a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent. Calls to Stroye’s attorney, Nathan Criste, and the Bucks County Correctional Facility were not returned.
As part of its mission to protect the rights of vulnerable populations, the Civil Rights Division prosecutes select cases involving hate crimesand/or police misconduct. The Division, which also files civil suits related to sexual harassment, voting rights, housing discrimination and religious liberty, has been described on Capitol Hill as the “nation’s moral compass.”
In one of the Division’s most prominent police violence cases, four LAPD officers were charged with deprivation of rights under color of law after beating motorist Rodney King during a traffic stop in 1991. Although a state trial ended with acquittals — leading to riots in Los Angeles — the officers were later indicted by the Justice Department. Two of them, Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell got convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison. The other two defendants, Timothy E. Wind, and Theodore J. Briseno were acquitted.
In messages obtained by prosecutors, one of the officers expressed an eagerness to engage in violent confrontations with demonstrators: “It’s gonna get IGNORANT tonight!! But it’s gonna be a lot of fun beating the hell out of these s——-s once the sun goes down and nobody can tell us apart!!!”
Federal excessive force prosecutions are relatively rare because the government must prove an officer specifically set out to deprive a victim of his or her constitutional rights, per a 1945 Supreme Court decision known as Screws V. United States. In that case, the high court overturned the convictions of a Georgia sheriff and two deputies for the beating death of an African-American prisoner because the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury they must find the defendants acted “willfully,” with the purpose of violating the victim’s rights.
Proving Nucera committed a hate crime, in addition to willful deprivation of rights, is a tough task for prosecutors. The government is planning to play Roohr’s tapes in the courtroom to back its allegation that the chief hit Stroye out of hatred of African-Americans.
In an omnibus motion to dismiss the indictment, the defense questioned the FBI’s use of unauthorized cellphone recordings to build a case against the retired chief, arguing the investigation grew out of internal politics at the police department. During a hearing at the federal courthouse in Camden last Tuesday, the judge ruled that the issues raised by Nucera’s attorney did not warrant tossing the indictment.
The crossroads of New Jersey
Bordentown Township, population 12,202, is a Philadelphia suburb on the banks of the Delaware River where the median household income is about $86,000 and more than 75% of residents are white. Originally settled by Quakers, the township is the self-proclaimed “crossroads of the heart of New Jersey,” 45 miles upriver from Philadelphia and about 65 miles southwest of New York City. A two-mile stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike curves through the east side of Bordentown.
Nucera, 61, served with the Bordentown police for 34 years, working his way up to chief and administrator. He put in long hours and boasted of running the township “like a business.”
There was trouble beneath the surface. Roohr and his colleagues told the FBI that the chief was verbally abusive, but they didn’t report him in fear of retaliation. In a police department with a roster of 28 sworn officers, at least ten were surreptitiously recording their interactions with Nucera.
Nucera’s attorney doesn’t dispute that his client used racial slurs, but he argued in his court filing there’s a shortage of evidence to substantiate the charge that the chief hit Stroye.
Cipparone wanted two separate trials, with standalone proceedings for the hate crime assault charge so the jury could determine whether there’s proof beyond reasonable doubt Nucera pushed Stroye into the door. The judge denied this request at the hearing last Tuesday.
Tracking hate and excessive force
Every year, the FBI publishes the Uniform Crime Report, an overview based on stats from local police departments. It is an incomplete snapshot of crime in the United States, since participation is voluntary and law enforcement agencies can opt out of sharing info with the federal government.
The FBI does gather some lethal force data. The “killing of a felon” in the line of duty is called a “justifiable homicide” in the bureau’s annual crime report. According to the latest UCR, 429 individuals were killed by law enforcement in 2017. That is likely an undercount since local agencies are not required to share info with the FBI and the definition of a “justifiable homicide” is somewhat ambiguous. The Washington Post, which maintains its own database of fatal police shootings based on news reports, police websites and social media,estimated 985 people were killed by police in 2017.
A total of 65 individuals got charged with deprivation of civil rights under color of law during fiscal year 2018, according to the DOJ. Most defendants were law enforcement officers but color of law violations can also be committed by judges, prosecutors, government workers and private individuals aiding and abetting the police. Nucera is the only officer charged with deprivation of rights and hate crime assault, according to the DOJ.
The federal definition of a hate crime is: “An offense involving actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin. Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person.” Additionally, any offense committed against an individual because of actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability is also a hate crime.
So why did the FBI get involved in the Nucera case?
At some point in September or October of 2016, Roohr called an old friend, Jacob Archer, a special agent at the FBI’s Philadelphia office who started his career as a Bordentown city police officer. Roohr visited Archer at his home to tell him about the Ramada incident. Archer referred Roohr to a special agent from the FBI’s New Jersey office, Arthur Durrant, who was involved in a 2007 investigation of the chief. The bureau looked into allegations Nucera misused funds during his tenure as the township fire commissioner, according to the Burlington County Times. (The 2007 investigation ended without charges being filed.)
Separately, Captain Brian Pesce of the Bordentown Police Department’s internal affairs unit prepared a complaint about the chief’s conduct and scheduled a meeting with the Burlington County prosecutor’s office but canceled after the FBI told him to hold off. (Pesce is now Bordentown police chief.)
Right from the start, Roohr told the FBI he had deleted some of his recordings, claiming there was nothing relevant in those files. In the motion to dismiss, Nucera’s attorney said a sworn police officer should know destroying evidence is a serious breach that can derail an investigation.
Nucera’s attorney also criticized the FBI for failing to conduct a forensic search of Roohr’s computer to retrieve the recordings that had been erased. The bureau’s experts routinely recover deleted files from computers.
“Those people don’t like dogs”
The prosecution’s court filings paint a portrait of a police chief whose misconduct was unchecked because employees felt intimidated by him. Officers said Nucera tended to escalate tense situations and railed against “towel heads,” “spics” and “moulinyans.” Even staffers who praised the chief admitted he made jokes laced with racial slurs.
The chief could be compassionate — he once helped a fire victim pay for a hotel room — but he also had a vindictive side, officers told the FBI.
Nucera is accused of sending K-9 officers to the high school for basketball games when the visiting team was predominantly black. According to court documents, Nucera said words to the effect of, “We’re going to have dogs working that night because those people don’t like dogs.”
At an active shooter training drill, Nucera allegedly embarrassed an African-American officer. Before loaning the officer a GoPro camera to wear on his head, the chief warned him not to get grease on it.
In November 2015, squad members discovered one of the police vehicles had a flat tire in the station parking lot. Nucera said he suspected the tire had been slashed as an act of revenge by an African-American man who’d been arrested for disorderly conduct.
“I wish that n—– would come back from Trenton and give me a reason to put my hands on him, I’m tired of ’em,” Nucera said, according to court documents. “These n—-s are like ISIS, they have no value. They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad. I could do it.”
An incestuous “witch hunt”
If everyone was troubled by the chief’s behavior, they should have spoken out sooner, Nucera’s attorney, Cipparone wrote in his motion to dismiss. For instance, the New Jersey attorney general’s office has strict guidelines for the deployment of police dogs. A chief who uses K-9 teams to intimidate minorities could be charged with deprivation of rights under New Jersey state law, according to Cipparone.
The defense described the FBI investigation as a “witch hunt” fueled by workplace grievances rather than concern about excessive force or intolerance.
Multiple officers told the FBI the chief was stingy with overtime assignments, and three cops claimed he docked their pay as a disciplinary measure. Many said Nucera was fixated on generating revenue for the township with traffic citations.
Nucera’s attorney wrote that his client was a tough, fiscally responsible boss overseeing resentful subordinates who leveraged personal relationships to make a federal case out of a botched arrest rife with misconduct by all involved.
The chief repeatedly denied hitting Stroye in the tapes obtained by prosecutors.
“To me there was no indication that anybody was injured other than the normal amount of force to put somebody in custody,” Nucera said. “You know, it’s like Timoney said, ‘How do you arrest somebody nicely that doesn’t want to be arrested?'”
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.”
Defense attorneys and the state Public Defender’s Office say the unprecedented release of police use-of-force data in New Jersey could significantly bolster the rights of defendants who for years have had the odds stacked against them in court.
In the wake of The Force Report, a 16-month investigation of police use of force by NJ Advance Media for NJ.com, the attorneys said they have been strategizing over how they could use the data to gain more access to police personnel records in their cases.
“Until (NJ Advance Media) published (its) work, there was no resource like this available,” said Sharon Bittner Kean, president of the Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys of New Jersey. “We’re delighted to have a tool that could bolster the rights of defendants.”
The investigation found that while the majority of police officers in the state barely used force at all, many departments had individuals who did so far more than their peers. The data revealed that multiple officers who were charged with brutalizing suspects and other types of misconduct would have raised red flags had a system been in place to track use of force trends.
The entire database is now available to the public at NJ.com/force.
The attorneys said that accessing police records can be difficult during discovery. They said cannot request a police officer’s entire disciplinary record when they can’t present proof that there’s anything relevant to the case in it. With the newly released data, they said they may now have a basis to request and receive more documentation.
“A lot of people think we can just go into court, ask and a prosecutor just hands it over. That’s not how it works,” said Jennifer Sellitti, director of training and communications for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender. “Now we can use statistics to support our argument. We can say we know this exists. That gives us something we can put into a motion.”
Bittner-Kean said the defense attorney association plans to discuss The Force Report at its next board meeting and brainstorm how to use it in court. Sellitti said attorneys working for the Public Defender’s office already have been combing through the database, and the office has been crackling with excitement at the possibilities it presents.
“This is something we’ve been discussing for a long time, and (NJ Advance Media) just stepped on the accelerator for everyone,” she said.
Sellitti also believes the newly released use-of-force data could prove valuable in other aspects of criminal litigation, such as reinforcing the prosecution’s requirement to turn over evidence that may be favorable to the defense.
“It adds some teeth to what we’re asking prosecutors for,” she said.
Matthew Troiano, a defense attorney who spent years as a prosecutor for Hudson and Morris counties, said the database removed barriers to learning about an officer’s history.
That could especially impact cases where an officer’s testimony conflicted with the testimony of someone he or she had arrested, Troiano said, because the differing accounts could be more easily compared to that cop’s past arrests.
“In that type of situation, it’d be extremely helpful,” Troiano said.
To build The Force Report, reporters filed 506 public records requests, collected 72,609 paper records and spent more than $30,000 to create the most comprehensive statewide database of police force in the United States. The records — spanning 2012 through 2016, the most recent year available — cover every municipal police department and the State Police
Terence Jones, a civil rights investigator, said he hopes The Force Report will prompt state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to push for more transparency in policing data and enact reforms that will allow for greater accountability.
“I think it’s an embarrassment that you have to have a news organization do the work of these agencies,” he said. “The police have proved they cannot police themselves. And right now, you have county prosecutors acting as if they are the personal lawyers of the police. The state is supposed to represent the people.”
Perhaps the single greatest power granted a police officer is the legal authority to use force against another person. It is a normal part of policing, whether it’s twisting someone’s arm behind their back or firing a gun.
A 16-month investigation into New Jersey’s broken system for tracking and stopping overly aggressive police officers before they cause unnecessary injuries and costly lawsuits. NJ Advance Media reporters filed 506 public records requests and collected 72,607 use-of-force forms covering 2012 through 2016, the most recent full year available.
In response to the investigation, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal conceded the entire system for tracking police use of force was broken and promised a major overhaul.
“The reporting that you’ve done and the hoops you had to jump through to get this data are completely unnecessary,” Grewal said. “It shouldn’t have taken you a year and 500 OPRA requests, and we’re committed to making this data more available, not just to the media but to the public.
Using force can inflict significant and lasting harm on a person. A failure to properly oversee police use of force can result in overly aggressive officers unnecessarily injuring or killing people. Besides the human toll, such actions can cost taxpayers a lot of money in lawsuits.
No. Using force is a normal and necessary part of policing to protect both the public and the officer. But experts agree it should be closely monitored in order to intervene with officers who may be pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable or who are being outright excessive.
The database covers uses of force from 2012 through 2016 for every municipal police officer and State Police trooper. It includes detailed breakdowns on race of subjects and officers, types of force used, reasons for using force, injuries and more. And it’s all available for the public’s use now on nj.com/force.
Enter the name of your local department or any officer for their statistics and how they compare.
We want to hear from you about stories or trends you find in the database, or other issues related to police use of force that you think should be investigated. You can reach our team of reporters directly at email@example.com or check out our many ways to securely submit a tip at nj.com/tips.
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Jim Walsh, Cherry Hill Courier-PostPublished 1:16 p.m. ET Oct. 29, 2018 | Updated 5:25 p.m. ET Oct. 31, 2018
CAMDEN – A federal judge has ruled a Glassboro man can pursue a civil rights lawsuit against two police officers who allegedly used excessive force during an arrest.
Kameron Teel, a former Glassboro High School soccer star, contends he was the victim of a police assault after being stopped while taking his bike through New Street Park on the night of June 24, 2016.
Teel alleges Glassboro police Sgt. Daniel Eliasen “climbed on top of him, choked him, sprayed him with pepper spray and handcuffed him,” Kugler’s ruling noted.
The suit contends a second officer, Domenic Visceglia, threatened to unleash a K-9 on Teel, who was then 26.
It also says either Eliasen or Visceglia “slammed (Teel’s) head into the police vehicle multiple times,” the judge noted in the decision issued Friday.
Teel was accused of resisting arrest and other offenses, but the charges were dismissed a month later.
Teel, who worked as a substitute teacher, sued the borough, Eliasen and several unnamed officers in April 2017.
He amended his complaint in January of this year to name Visceglia and other officers.
Kugler’s ruling accepted the borough’s argument that Teel had failed to file a required tort claim notice before amending his lawsuit. The judge said that lapse barred Teel from pursuing state claims.
But Kugler said Teel could argue that Eliasen and Visceglia violated his constitutional rights by failing to intervene to stop his alleged mistreatment in the park.
That claim isn’t subject to a state law that requires tort notices in advance of lawsuits against public entities, the judge noted.
Teel’s attorney, David Wesley Cornish of Philadelphia, said his client could also pursue federal counts that include malicious prosecution, false arrest, excessive force and failure to intervene.
“We’re very pleased with the court’s ruling,” Cornish said Wednesday.
“Mr Teel feels very strongly that these officers’ actions were unconstitutional and he looks forward to having his day in court,” the attorney said.
A lawyer for the officers could not be reached for comment.
What we’re working on for the weekend of Oct. 19. Jenna Intersimone, @JIntersimone
EDISON – Five township police were indicted Friday by a grand jury on multiple charges including official misconduct, participating in a pattern of official misconduct, and theft, according to a statement from Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey.
Sgt. Ioannis (John) Mpletsakis, 39, Patrolman Paul Pappas, 44, and Patrolman James Panagoulakos, 32, all of Edison; Patrolman Gregory Makras, 34, of Cranford, and Sgt. Brian Rossmeyer, 41, of Bedminister, were charged in an 11-count indictment with two counts of official misconduct in the second degree, participation in a pattern of official misconduct in the second degree, financial facilitation of criminal activity in the second degree, conspiracy to commit the crime of financial facilitation of criminal activity in the second degree, theft by unlawful taking in the second degree, and theft by deception in the second degree, the statement said.
In addition, Mpletsakis was charged with promoting organized street crime in the first degree, while Makras was charged with hindering prosecution in the third degree, uttering a forged document in the fourth degree, and fabricating physical evidence in the fourth degree, authorities said.
The indictment was handed up in New Brunswick following an investigation by the Edison Police Department’s – Internal Affairs Unit and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office. The case was presented to the grand jury by Middlesex County Assistant Prosecutor Christine D’Elia.
These charges against the officers, announced earlier this year, came just as the department was working to rebuild its image tarnished by another group of sworn Edison officers convicted of criminal charges, including Michael Dotro, who is serving 20 years in state prison, for setting fire to the home of a superior officer.
The investigation determined that between Nov. 14, 2016, and May 7, 2018, the Edison Police Officers were getting paid for extra-duty jobs which they were not present for. These extra-duty, or “side jobs,” were in addition to the regular hours which they as members of the Edison Police Department were assigned to work, the statement said.
The officers, who volunteered to take these extra assignments, had full police responsibilities while assigned to the extra-duty jobs. These assignments included directing traffic for utility companies as well as providing security services for local businesses and residential communities.
“While the Edison Police Department has recently taken important steps to ensure that the extra-duty jobs are now assigned and completed in a legitimate fashion, this investigation is very much active and continuing,” Carey said in the statement.
Mpletsakis has been a member of the Edison Police Department for 16 years, Pappas for 14 years, Panagoulakos for 4 years, Makras for 7 years, and Rossmeyer has been with the department for 11 years.
The officers are scheduled to appear in Superior Court in New Brunswick on Dec. 6.
Separately, Pappas was indicted last month on official misconduct and computer theft charges as well as allegedly stalking his former girlfriend.
Mpletsakis and Rossmeyer were promoted to the rank of sergeant in December. Mpletsakis gained notoriety in July 2005 when he crashed his BMW into a box truck and fled the scene while nude.
New Jersey stands nearly alone in the nation for refusing to ban bad cops. The state fails to track officers with known histories of bias or lies.
Andrew Ford, Asbury Park Press
Published 5:00 a.m. ET Sept. 20, 2018 | Updated 2:59 p.m. ET Sept. 21, 2018
Eileen Cassidy, a Spring Lake Heights mother of three, spent 22 days in jail because New Jersey hid a State Police sergeant’s misconduct for nearly a year, her attorney argued.
She pleaded guilty in 2016 to a drunken driving charge without knowing that the breath-testing machine used in her case was unreliable, her attorney claimed in a brief filed in June before the state Supreme Court.
A State Police sergeant responsible for certifying breath-testing machines as accurate was indicted by a state grand jury on charges he falsified documents to show a machine had been properly tested when he had actually skipped a step Cassidy’s attorney called “extremely vital” in his brief. The sergeant pleaded not guilty and his case is pending.
The alleged fabrication throws into doubt the validity of breath samples in more than 20,000 DWI cases involving machines certified by the sergeant – including Cassidy’s. The state attorney general’s office knew about the skipped steps but failed to tell Cassidy and others about the problem for 11 months before Cassidy pleaded guilty, Cassidy’s lawyer claims. The state has argued that the step improves confidence in the tests, but doesn’t affect scientific reliability.
The breath testing machine debacle highlights the damage done to cases involving thousands of defendants when New Jersey fails to catch police misconduct or tell the public about bad officers.
In most other states, an officer who breaks a rule can be banned from wearing a badge, some even without a criminal conviction.
But New Jersey is different. It stands nearly alone in the nation for its lack of state oversight of police officers.
New Jersey is one of just four states that does not license police officers, a basic safeguard used nationwide to ensure bad cops don’t skirt the rules or move from town to town. Licensing is a practice common to dozens of other professions, from doctors to massage therapists, and even other public employees, such as municipal finance officers. Licensing helps ensure professional standards are uniform, upheld and bad actors are banned.
Yet in New Jersey, the police oversight system is in such disarray that officials cannot track a wayward officer’s untoward conduct. Moreover, the state has no clear rules for when – or even if – a problem cop’s past has to be disclosed to those he or she arrests.
Next time you’re in a traffic stop, a cop previously accused of dishonesty can arrest you, but there will likely be no way to know about his past, the Asbury Park Press and USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey found.
WATCH: Exclusive interview with NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal Tanya Breen and Andrew Ford, Asbury Park Press
Network reviewed thousands of pages of police records and court documents to find:
Dozens arrested by a cop a prosecutor’s office thought to be on desk duty – At least 43 people have been arrested by a Manchester officer after his town fired him – though he was later reinstated – and Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office told a court he would “undermine confidence” in prosecutions. A court, however, brushed off the prosecutor’s claim and found in favor of the officer in all but one issue. Top officials in the prosecutor’s office said they thought the officer was not on patrol until the Network showed them he was making arrests.
$1.9 million in police salaries keeps 20 questionable cops on duty – Eight cops known to have been untruthful, a cop who made bigoted social media posts and another accused of trying to fix a ticket for his cousin are among 20 officers still on duty and collecting salaries and benefits.
$1.6 million to settle claim after beating and cover-up – In June, Bloomfield agreed to a $1.6 million settlement of allegations related to an incident in which a man was beaten during a 2012 traffic stop and two cops falsified police reports. Former officers Sean Courter and Orlando Trinidad are still in prison serving a five-year sentence after they were convicted of crimes connected to that incident. Claims of police abuse cost New Jersey taxpayers more than $51 million since 2010, the Network found in a review of lawsuit settlements. That includes 24 deaths and 136 injuries.
NJ’s bad cop blind spots
No licensing for NJ cops
New Jersey can’t ban a bad officer in the way a rogue lawyer is disbarred. Officers in Pennsylvania and Florida, for example, can lose their licenses for less than criminal activity, like lying on an application. Lists of officers banned from serving in those two states are publicly accessible.
The Garden State is now one of four without a way to ban bad cops – Hawaii passed a police oversight overhaul in July.
“There’s a lot of professions that are licensed to a minimum standard and I think law enforcement officers should be held to a minimum standard of conduct and job performance,” Hawaii Rep. Scott Y. Nishimoto said.
One of the nation’s top police standards groups – run by cops for cops – recommends police officers be certified and tracked the same way New Jersey licenses dozens of other professions. The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training based in Idaho maintains a national database of more than 25,000 officer decertifications, intended to stop bad officers from jumping state lines to find new jobs in policing. With no system to ban bad cops, New Jersey can’t contribute to that list.
“Many times when they don’t license and don’t decertify officers, a bad officer that has committed serious misconduct seems to bounce from agency to agency and continue that misconduct,” Executive Director Michael Becar said. “That’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
The Network found that while state law bans convicted criminals from wearing a badge, cops who faced allegations in court as serious as official misconduct and witness tampering were able to secure deals that kept them on duty. In one case, a cop who agreed as part of a court sentence to never again work police or fire jobs then served as a volunteer firefighter and elected fire commissioner.
No standard for disclosing an officer’s checkered past
Based on a series of court decisions over decades, prosecutors have a duty to tell defense attorneys if a police officer has a tainted past – a lie here, a bad report there. That way, the logic goes, a defense lawyer can point out to a jury if an officer has a history of being untruthful. It’s sometimes called “Brady” material, named after a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
New Jersey has no clear rules, however, that outline what prosecutors need to give up about an officer’s checkered past. A Network review of all 21 counties found that 17 don’t have a policy addressing the issue. Nineteen have no list of troubled officers.
Failing to make the right disclosures undermines a defendant’s right to fair treatment in court and can lead to complicated appeals.
The best available data on police employment histories is limited and flawed.
Seventy-one working officers were previously removed from public safety jobs due to discipline, according to a review of New Jersey’s Civil Service Commission public employee records.
But the data only cover about a quarter of the public employees in the state. And in at least 22 cases, the Network found the data conflicted with municipal employment records or information about an officer’s employment history provided by police officers or chiefs.
In at least one case, sloppy coding was the cause for conflicting employment records. In another case, an officer’s history wasn’t accurately reflected in the data and applications filed by the officer revealed he didn’t disclose a past firing to one employer.
None of the 71 officers appear in Brady materials provided to the Network, calling into question whether prosecutors knew about those past issues or disclosed them to defendants.
Two law professors said the significance of a firing in court would depend on what the officer was fired for, but detailed records of an officer’s discipline history are hidden, by law, from public view.
Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office couldn’t say if they’ve told defense attorneys about an Asbury Park cop with past issues. Before he was hired in 2001, he was fired as an Ocean County security guard, subject to one “force resignation” as a Lakewood police dispatcher, and once charged with criminal sexual contact, though the 1998 charge was dismissed, according to his employment application.
That officer’s background hasn’t affected the prosecution of any cases, prosecutor’s spokesman Charlie Webster wrote in an email. Webster declined to say whether the officer’s background will be disclosed to defendants in cases he is involved with, but said generally “information about police officers is routinely disclosed in court.”
Grappling with ‘dishonesty’ claims
At least 43 people have been arrested since 2015 by a cop whose testimony a top official in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office told the Network in May the office would never base a prosecution on.
The prosecutor’s office argued in court in 2014 that Manchester Patrolman Ryan Saul should remain fired following internal charges including “dishonesty.” Judges took Saul’s side and put him back on duty.
Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato brought up his office’s involvement in Saul’s litigation in an interview about police accountability practices with the Network in May, saying “I don’t think he’s out on patrol.”
Coronato’s second-in-command, First Assistant Prosecutor John R. Corson Jr., also said in that May interview the office “would never base a prosecution on the testimony of that particular officer.”
“…I’m inclined to believe… that he’s in a position with the department now which would not require him to interact with the public or ever become involved in a criminal matter or municipal court matter which would compel this officer’s testimony,” Corson said in the May interview. “I believe he’s probably riding a desk somewhere.”
Saul is not on desk duty. Saul is on patrol. Saul made an arrest as recently as June, according to police records.
At least four people arrested by Saul have pleaded guilty in Superior Court to crimes like theft, hindering apprehension and prowling to obtain drugs, according to court documents.
Ocean County Prosecutor’s officials are now in the position the office once called “untenable” in a brief to appellate judges. The office is relying on a police officer who it claimed would “undermine confidence” in the integrity of prosecutions.
Saul and another officer used force to make an arrest after responding to a domestic argument in September 2010, court records show.
A Manchester internal affairs report filed in court documents alleged Saul’s version of events that night didn’t match the accounts of a fellow officer and civilian witnesses.
The report stated Saul claimed he was tackled by the suspect the officers arrested. Two witnesses and Saul’s fellow officer said this didn’t happen, the report shows.
The report also raised other concerns with Saul’s past behavior, including an incident in which Saul “admitted that he lied…” about statements he made during a police response.
Saul’s department accused him of 20 internal charges, court documents show, in part connected to his account of that arrest.
Saul was examined by at least three psychologists, a court document shows. Two found him unfit for duty and one reported that he was fit to serve.
The township fired Saul, then Saul challenged the firing in Superior Court.
The judge acknowledged differing accounts of the arrest, but found Saul’s account to be consistent over time and consistent with his fellow officer.
Superior Court Judge Mark A. Troncone, who sits in Toms River, found charges that Saul was dishonest about the arrest to be “completely without merit.” He found the township didn’t meet its burden to prove 19 of the 20 claims of wrongdoing, finding only that Saul violated the department code of conduct by not immediately reporting a knee injury he suffered during the arrest. Troncone called the three psychologists’ findings about Saul’s fitness “inconclusive” and reinstated Saul in 2014.
Appellate judges upheld Troncone’s ruling. The township filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court, but settled with Saul for $190,000 in a 2016 taxpayer-funded settlement. The town agreed to leave adverse findings out of Saul’s internal file, aside from the reprimand for not reporting the knee injury.
In 2017, Saul was paid more than $133,000 as a patrolman, township records show.
Saul’s attorney, Peter Paris, sent an email to the Network threatening legal action, underscoring that a judge “exonerated” his client of allegations relating to dishonesty. Paris said in an email the prosecutor’s office statements about not basing a prosecution on Saul’s testimony and about Saul not being on patrol are “patently false.” Paris stated that Saul has never been untruthful on the job and described the incident in which Saul admitted “I lied” as “bull—.”
“Ryan performs his job the same way he always has: with integrity, diligence, intelligence, and appropriate restraint,” Paris wrote. “The false allegations against him from years ago have no bearing on Ryan’s performance as a police officer.”
Manchester Police Chief Lisa Parker told the Network in a letter that Saul “is an officer currently in good standing” with the department.
Should defendants know about Saul?
Courts have established that prosecutors must turn over information helpful to the defense, including material on issues with a police officer’s credibility.
But a prosecutor’s duty to help the defense remains a murky legal area.
“Different offices will make different determinations about how far that goes,” Thomas Schmid, an assistant prosecutor in Morris County, said of Brady requirements.
The Network found at least 17 county prosecutor’s offices had no policy addressing the issue, including Ocean County.
Presented with the fact that Saul was making arrests, prosecutor’s spokesman Al Della Fave wrote in a text message that “we never claimed to know exactly in what capacity he is being utilized.”
The office had no records of making “Brady” notifications related to Saul.
Della Fave said the office won’t tell defendants about Saul’s background going forward.
“The way we read it, the court has determined he is truthful,” Della Fave said.
Asked about Saul’s participation in Superior Court criminal prosecutions, Della Fave said in August “it would be taken on a case-by-case basis, depending upon what the case is, the facts of the case,” and as of that time, there hasn’t been “a single situation where we had to deal with that issue.”
Della Fave said in September that every case a police officer testifies in – not just Saul’s – is reviewed for anything that would impact the case. Della Fave said Saul may be called to testify in a criminal case.
In a statement issued by the prosecutor’s office after this story published online, Coronato stated that “Every time OCPO evaluates a potential criminal matter, the office considers whether and how to employ the testimony of law enforcement officers; no officer is the subject of a blanket determination as to the credibility of his testimony.”
Corson didn’t respond to a September request for further comment.
Saul’s past does qualify as material that should be turned over to defendants, according to four legal experts including two law professors and the director of training and communications for the state public defender’s office, which she estimated handles roughly 85 percent of the criminal cases in New Jersey superior courts.
“Well, no one can be 100% certain in the nether world of Brady but the fact that the prosecutor thought the officer would bring disrespect on the entire department is enough for me,” Rutgers law professor George Thomas wrote in an email.
While Saul’s past might not be admissible at trial, defense attorneys should know about it, according to Alex Shalom, senior staff attorney for the ACLU in New Jersey.
“The bottom line is that the (prosecutor’s office) told a court that they believed this officer was unreliable,” Shalom said in an email. “It is unfair to allow them to now tell a jury to trust that same officer without at least notifying defense counsel of that critical inconsistency.”
‘Brady’ cops on duty
Troubled cops stay on duty in New Jersey – even when a disclaimer on their credibility follows them to court.
In two cases, conflicting authorities have left police chiefs hamstrung at taxpayer expense – stuck with cops they can’t fire but they can’t use to make arrests. Both officers earn six-figure salaries.
Edison Officer David Pedana remains on the job after he faced administrative charges “relating to the fact that he made numerous statements to others demonstrating racial and other bias,” according to a 2014 letter from Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office to Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan.
The prosecutor’s office letter states the office is “compelled to dismiss any and all cases” that would rely on Pedana, the letter shows.
But chief Bryan told the Network in September a departmental hearing officer determined Pedana shouldn’t be terminated from employment.
Bryan wasn’t able to discuss what allegations the hearing officer sustained about Pedana’s conduct, but said in September the hearing officer did have a copy of the letter the prosecutor’s office issued about Pedana. The hearing officer determined termination was “too harsh” a penalty for Pedana’s conduct, according to Bryan. But, Bryan said, he can’t put Pedana out on the road, in a position to make an arrest.
So Pedana is assigned to the records bureau and paid a $126,740 salary, pension records show.
“I’m in a precarious situation…” Bryan told the Network.
Bryan said he didn’t have to create a position for Pedana and Pedana does a good job.
The Network used public records to identify 20 working New Jersey police officers with documented credibility issues based on requests sent to all the county prosecutor’s offices and hundreds of municipal police departments. The issues with these officers have to be disclosed when they go to court. The Network contacted the departments for each of these officers, one officer and an attorney for another said they shouldn’t be on their county prosecutor’s office Brady list.
Four of those officers are still making arrests, their departments said.
Twelve of the officers with issues that must be disclosed in court collect six-figure salaries, according to state pension data, including:
$133,370 – Clifton Gauthier, a Rockaway Township officer, was accused of official misconduct and witness tampering after he tried in 2012 to get a DWI ticket against his cousin dismissed. He struck a deal for pre-trial intervention that spared him a criminal conviction in exchange for 25 hours of community service and a year on probation.
$142,709 – Michael LaRosa, a Lodi officer, made “bigoted comments on social media” and “negative comments about Muslims,” according to a letter from the local prosecutor’s office. He was booted from one criminal prosecution and marked by Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office as an officer whose participation in criminal cases would be made “on a case-by-case basis.”
$101,000 – Police Chief Jacquelyn Ferentz of the West Wildwood Police Department was named on the Cape May County Prosecutor’s “Brady” list. Records provided to the Network don’t say why she’s on the list. Ferentz told the Network she had disciplinary charges dismissed, she was reinstated in good standing and she won a whistleblower lawsuitin 2017. She won a $1.7 million judgment in that suit, a court document shows. Ferentz said she should not be on the list, but in a follow-up call a captain in the prosecutor’s office said that the Brady list is accurate.
Brady gap statewide
There’s no state requirement to track Brady officers with records sometimes known as “Brady lists.” Nineteen of the 21 county prosecutors didn’t have a Brady list, the Network found.
The lack of record keeping on troubled officers can leave a prosecutor’s staff at a loss.
Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Lipp wrote in response to a records request that the prosecutor’s office didn’t make a Brady notification during her three years in her current role.
Before that time, Lipp wrote of notifications: “there is no way for me to know – there is no way to research that.”
Existing state policy calls for police departments to tell prosecutors about credibility issues with an officer. Prosecutors aren’t obligated to actively scrutinize the background of an arresting officer.
“When a case comes in, nobody says, ‘wait a minute, this is a police officer, let me go back and take a look to see exactly what this guy’s history in the office (is),’” Ocean County Prosecutor Coronato said. “Nobody ever does that.”
Across New Jersey’s border, however, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is proactive in keeping track of Brady records.
The office is working with the city’s police department to create a database of officers whose background requires disclosure to defense attorneys, according to Patricia Cummings, supervisor for a unit in the office that examines convictions.
“It goes to the very core of the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Cummings said.
She said New Jersey prosecutors should track those troubled officers.
“Absolutely they should,” she said. “I think they’ve got an obligation to do so.”
The USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey reveals three gaps in the state’s police oversight system and how it affects you. Andrew Ford, @AndrewFordNews
New Jersey needs more change
Following the Network’s January investigation into gaps in New Jersey police accountability, state lawmakers moved in May to impanel a task force to review training – and the state certification process – for cops and corrections officer.
In a statement Wednesday in response to the Network’s findings, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal pointed to his three directives this year, which followed Network reporting on police accountability: random drug testing for all police officers, a police early warning system, and an order to release video recordings of police using deadly force.
Grewal announced in September the creation of a unit in his office to combat public corruption that will handle internal affairs investigations and “allegations of civil rights violations involving law enforcement officers and agencies.”
In a May interview, Grewal said his office is reviewing the state’s guidelines for police internal affairs investigations and looking at the “viability” of a statewide plan to improve Brady disclosures.
But he stopped short of a licensing program.
“I think we have a fairly established regime here with the certification process that we have in place,” he said. Grewal said he didn’t think a central repository for officer history housed in his office was “called for.”
There is a secret database maintained by the state police – that was withheld in response to a 2015 request by the Network – that lists New Jersey cops who failed drug tests.
Could a similar list be made of officers otherwise deemed unfit to serve?
“I have not looked into that,” Grewal said in May. “That’s not on the drawing board right now. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be on the drawing board at some point.”
Grewal said law enforcement wants to root out “bad apples.”
“We want to get to the bottom of these problems,” he said. “We want to make the profession better.”
Body camera footage shows Berkeley police officers arresting Heriberto Carrisquillo, who recently settled a civil suit against the township for $82,500. Footage courtesy Mallon & Tranger. Alex N. Gecan and Ryan Ross, Asbury Park Press
BERKELEY – The township has agreed to pay $82,500 to a legally deaf man who says he was a victim of excessive force in a 2016 arrest, when a back-and-forth he could not hear disintegrated into a physical altercation with police.
Heriberto Carrasquillo, 59, of Rutherford settled with the township May 31, according to a release and settlement agreement the Asbury Park Press obtained through a public records request. The settlement closed the third of four federal excessive force lawsuits against township police that name the same former patrolman, Patrick J. Stesner.
In his complaint, Carrasquillo accused Patrolmen Taylor Butler, Christopher Elliott and Stesner of punching and kneeing him and pushing his face into concrete after he led them to see several imitation firearms. Police had gone to the Berkeley home where he was staying to investigate a domestic incident. Carrasquillo claimed he could not understand the officers’ instructions and had told them so. Township police denied any wrongdoing in their responses to his complaint.
“This case in particular, and municipal settlements (in general), there’s often arguable areas of any complaint,” township administrator John Camera told the Asbury Park Press in a phone interview. “This one, the way we saw it, there was certainly an argument that the officer could have acted better than he did, and there was also an argument from our end that there were really no damages due to the officer’s actions.”
The officer, Camera clarified, was Stesner. Carrasquillo’s lawsuit was the third of five federal lawsuits in less than 10 years alleging excessive force by township police. Stesner, 42, has never been a lone defendant, but he is the only officer named in as many as four lawsuits.
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The first two lawsuits, from Michael Forte in 2008 and Darren Yurick in 2014, settled for $110,000 each. In a fourth, Philip Giannattasio alleged in a February complaint that Stesner and patrolmen Steven M. Kappock and Ryan J. Wahl “used excessive and unreasonable force” during a June 2016 arrest. All of the defendants have denied wrongdoing. The case is ongoing.
There is video from Yurick’s encounter with police – in which he claimed officers beat him while he was in a holding cell – further down in this article. In this most recent settlement, none of the defendants — the township, township police, Chief Karin DiMichele, Butler, Elliott or Stesner — made any admission of wrongdoing, according to the agreement, which you can read at the bottom of this article.
Stesner “took Mr. Carrasquillo to the ground, really banged him, banged him up pretty good for no good reason,” Carrasquillo’s attorney, Thomas J. Mallon, told the Press.
Mallon, of Freehold firm Mallon & Tranger, also represented Forte and Yurick and currently represents Giannattasio. As with Carrasquillo, nobody made any admission of wrongdoing in the settlements with Forte and Yurick.
Darren Yurick claims his nose was broken when he was punched by a Berkeley police officer while handcuffed has filed a federal excessive force lawsuit against the police department. The incident was captured on this surveillance video.
“Mr. Carrasquillo is legally deaf, and he speaks very loud as a result of that,” Mallon said. “I think Stesner didn’t know how to deal with a guy who spoke loud to him, and he felt that it was confrontational when it really wasn’t and just overreacted as he did in other cases, and that’s what led to this settlement.”
Carrasquillo was charged with assault, aggravated assault, resisting arrest and possession of an imitation firearm at the time of the encounter, according to Carrasquillo’s 2017 civil complaint and police records.
Carrasquillo resolved his charges by way of pre-trial intervention, a diversionary program that can provide a way for first-time offenders to have charges dismissed, according to his complaint.
“They should have taken action after the first (case), they should have fired him after the second,” Mallon said. “Now there’s a third and a fourth.”
At least some of the settlement will come from the township’s insurer, the Garden State Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, said Camera, but he did not have an exact breakdown on how much the township itself would have to pay.
Camera said the costs of defending a civil case factor into whether the township will settle.
“You have to weigh all those things in and unless you can say 100 percent sure that you feel really confident that there was nothing wrong done by the township … then we often do end up settling cases,” Camera said. He said it wasn’t ideal, but “it’s just a practicality.”
As far as the settlement goes, Mallon said his client was “satisfied.”
“He ran into an officer who made a mountain out of a molehill,” Mallon said. “And now, fortunately, Stesner is now gone.”
Camera said the police department and the rest of the township do their best every day to “take care of the job that we need to do.”
“You can’t always get it right, but certainly our goal and our ideology here is to treat all people fairly,” he said. “Our officers are often in difficult situations and, I think, deal with them admirably.”
Stesner’s salary at the time of his retirement, after approximately 15 years of service, was $110,630, according to township records. During his tenure he received praise from educators and other police agencies for his work with young people.
It is unclear whether Stesner applied for a conventional retirement or a disability retirement. Police officers in New Jersey who take conventional retirement before 20 years of service receive prorated pensions, according to the state treasury department.
Stesner’s personal lawyer, Robert F. Renaud, did not return a message requesting comment.
Nobody returned messages at a number listed as Stesner’s.
A police officer in Elizabeth, New Jersey is suspended without pay and facing the charge of simple assault after a man in custody was severely beaten.
The video, which has been edited by the victim’s attorney, is violent and disturbing to watch.
Raul Tornes is seen in handcuffs being choked, beaten, and dragged inside the Elizabeth police department. The 27-year-old victim is claiming police brutality
“I was struck in the ribs, struck in the chest, getting kneed in my face, kicked in my face, punched in my face, and I’m getting hit in areas where you have vital organs,” said Tornes.
He says he lost a gall bladder from the beating and still suffers from extreme anxiety and post concussion problems
“My eye was shut closed. My lip was swollen. I had blood all over me,” he said.
Raul is a DJ. He says he had never been arrested before and had a good relationship with police. But last October, Elizabeth officers showed up at his home after his girlfriend called them over a dispute.
What happened next was a series of violent beatings caught on police body cams and surveillance cameras. There are other officers engaged, but no one seems to be stopping the attacks.
Tornes was handcuffed throughout and is heard screaming in pain.
“For him to do that with all of those cameras there is scary because it is indicative of a culture,” said the victim’s attorney Joshua McMahon.
The charges were quickly dropped against Tornes but it has taken almost a year for charges to be brought against Elizabeth Police Officer Edward Shields. A grand jury on Friday indicted him on one count of simple assault.
“A cop who is this dangerous, armed with a gun, making well over $100,000 a year in taxpayer money, this is not someone who should be on streets with people,” said McMahon.
“I didn’t think I was going to survive because of the abuse I was taking,” said Tornes.
Raul’s attorney says Officer Shields has 50 instances of using force while on the job.
The Union County Prosecutors Office released the following statement:
” The Union County Prosecutors Office takes allegations of misconduct or violence on the part of police officers extremely seriously as is reflected by the decision to twice present the matter to grand jury. We feel that the grand jury decision reached on Friday speaks for itself”