Dead, beaten and abused: Millions paid in secret settlements to keep bad cops on the street and the public in danger
By Andrew Ford, Kala Kachmar and Paul D’Ambrosio Published Jan. 22 2018 by the Asbury Park Press.
Killed. Beaten. Stalked. More than 200 citizens across the state have been victimized in recent years by out-of-control rogue cops. In many cases, the cops kept their jobs, even got promoted – while tens of millions of your tax dollars kept the abuses quiet. Until now.
Piercing the shield
New Jersey governments across the state, from the smallest towns to some of the largest cities, have spent more than $42 million this decade to cover-up deaths, physical abuses and sexual misconduct at the hands of bad cops.
The abuse of police power has left a staggering toll: at least 19 dead; 131 injured; 7 sexual misconducts, plus dozens of other offenses ranging from false arrest to harassment, a two- year investigation by the Asbury Park Press found.
The damage is concealed by government officials who use a veil of secret settlements and nondisclosure agreements to silence victims. Investigations of rogue cops are routinely hidden from the public by police, elected officials and even the courts.
The secretive payouts that keep abuses quiet are a vital part of a system that enables bad cops to do their worst. The secrecy starts at the police department and rises through the highest levels of government. Some of the state’s largest cities and insurance carriers refused to release government documents that are at the core of the rogue cop problem.
But the tens of millions of dollars paid to settle hundreds of legal claims are not the worst part.
Many of the bad cops remain on the street.
The Press investigation found that several towns knew of their bad cops’ propensity towards violence yet ignored multiple warning signs until the cops crossed the line by injuring or killing innocent people.
Meet Jersey City’s MD Khan, a violent cop.
In February 2016, Khan was arrested on charges of punching his brother-in-law in the face, causing “serious facial injuries and a possible fractured” eye socket and jaw, and threatening to shoot him, a police report stated.
Khan brushed off the criminal charges as a grand jury dismissed the claims. His only punishment: a 40-day police department suspension. After that, the officer returned to the streets, armed with a weapon and the full force of the law.
Khan’s suspension didn’t prevent more violence. During a car chase that could have been a scene from an action movie, Khan shot at a suspect fleeing in a vehicle and then pursued the car through the streets of Jersey City, according to criminal charges filed against him.
The June 4, 2017, chase ended tragically for Miguel Feliz, 28, an innocent victim caught in the mayhem.
The father of a 6-year-old was driving home from his Peapod grocery delivery job when the suspect ran Feliz’s aging Toyota off the road. The car burst into flames after slamming into a utility pole.
With his clothing on fire and choking on the acrid smoke, Feliz needed help from the police. He got Khan.
Khan and another officer kicked Feliz as he laid burning on the ground. Feliz was struck in the face, a cellphone video shot by a passerby showed. Months later, both officers were indicted on aggravated assault charges. The officers have pleaded not guilty.
“I thought they were there to help,” Feliz said weeks after the incident, healing from four broken ribs – inflicted by police, he says – and multiple burns.
“But obviously not.”
In another state, Khan’s first arrest would likely have been his last day as a police officer. In Florida, conduct involving an assault can cost a police officer’s license to enforce the law, even if they’re not criminally prosecuted.
But not in New Jersey.
From internal affairs to the courthouse, a weave of secret investigations, quiet payouts, nondisclosure agreements and court-enforced silence ends up keeping horrendous conduct and multi-million-dollar payouts away from public scrutiny.
Rogue cops are a fraction of the 33,000 officers who protect the public each day. But bad cops remain on the street because of one number: 466. That is the number of municipal police departments in the state, most with 23 or fewer officers, and some employing multiple family members.
Each of the 466 departments has a unique political culture and an internal affairs system that is rarely overseen by outsiders – unless the police chief believes an officer might have committed a crime.
New Jersey is one of five states that doesn’t officially license police officers or have a method to ban bad cops, much the way the government can disbar wayward lawyers or pull the licenses of intoxicated truck drivers. The other states without a police licensing revocation law are Rhode Island, Massachusetts, California and Hawaii.
Of at least 64,353 internal affairs complaints filed since 2011, less than one half of 1 percent – 226 – resulted in an officer being charged with a crime, the Press found. Of those defendants, 90 were convicted.
“There’s just people out there that don’t belong on the job. Fortunately, the numbers are few,” said former Burlington Township police director Walter J. Corter, who also served as head of investigations for the Burlington County prosecutor’s office.
To expose the problems with New Jersey’s system for police accountability, the Press reviewed more than 30,000 pages of court, police and legal documents, settlements and once-secret separation agreements obtained by the Press, and interviewed dozens of victims, experts, lawyers and police officers.
The team found holes, conflicts and inconsistencies in police oversight that empowered problem cops in some departments to escalate their behavior until it became criminal, even deadly.
- A cop with domestic dispute history kills his ex-wife — Neptune Police Sgt. Philip Seidle has an internal affairs record that tops 600 pages and spans two decades, with several complaints known to involve domestic disputes between him and his wife. He was considered enough of a risk to the public that his service weapon was taken from him, but he was later rearmed. He used that gun to fatally shoot his ex-wife in 2015 in the middle of an Asbury Park street, in front of their 7-year-old daughter. He’s serving a 30-year prison sentence
- A well-known violent cop beats a suspect on camera — Bloomfield police officer Orlando Trinidad was known in the department for using force to subdue suspects, accounting for nearly a third of the so-called “use-of-force” police reports in the 120-member department. After nearly ripping the ear off a handcuffed suspect inside the police station in 2013, a lawsuit claims, Trinidad then looked directly into the surveillance camera to seemingly mock the ensuing internal affairs review by saying, “IA.” The suit settled for $364,000 without any admission of fault. He was sentenced to five years in prison for lying on a police report in a separate incident.
- A lack of oversight — Now-retired Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. was charged by federal agents in November 2017 with assaulting a black man and repeatedly making violent and racist remarks. The need for outside intervention by the FBI underscores the limited oversight of New Jersey’s hundreds of police chiefs. His lawyer didn’t return a message seeking comment. Nucera retired in January 2017, after the alleged assault but before the indictment. He is awaiting trial. Upon leaving, Nucera was paid $54,002, including compensation for unused sick and vacation days.
- Repeated beatings claims, department inaction — Alleged beatings by Atlantic City police officer Andrew Jaques prompted at least two lawsuits. The city refused to provide the Press with the settlement amounts. But the case raised the ire of a federal judge in one decision who called Jaques “short-fused” and “volatile.” He retired on disability in August, at an annual salary of $101,620, the Press found. Another city officer, Sterling Wheaten, has been the subject of at least 15 internal affairs complaints and the city paying $4.5 million to settle five lawsuits, according to media reports. No admission of wrongdoing was made in the settlements and Wheaten remains on the force at a salary of $108,548.
- The $1.8 million cop — Battling a problem cop can be extraordinarily expensive. Taxpayers spent at least $1.8 million in a 9-year effort to fire Manuel Avila, a Paterson patrolman with a history of mental health trouble accused of sexual assault but acquitted at trial. Although not convicted of being a violent cop, the city put Avila on paid suspension that ultimately cost at least $940,000. The city also agreed to a $710,000 settlement with the woman, plus at least $92,000 in legal fees. In a settlement with the officer, the city agreed to dismiss disciplinary charges against Avila if he decided to resign. The agreement allowed him to collect $85,134 for unused sick and vacation time. He is now trying to get a $72,000 annual pension, which would include credit for six years while he was suspended.
In the Atlantic City case involving the “short-fused” Jaques, the Press found in court documents that Jaques was investigated by his uncle. Jaques remained on the force for another 10 years, leading to more lawsuits from civilians.
The quality of internal affairs reviews meant to root out rogue cops “comes down to one person — whoever is doing the investigation,” said Rich Rivera, a former West New York police officer. For the last 20 years, Rivera has reviewed internal affairs investigations, police use-of-force reports in lawsuits and consulted with police departments. “Because the entire process is secret, we typically don’t know what the contents of the investigation were, and whether they were properly done or not,” he said.
While on the police force in the mid-1990s, Rivera worked undercover with the FBI to help put corrupt cops from his department in jail.
Internal affairs reports frequently show inadequate investigations and conclusions, Rivera said of the more than 900 IA files he has reviewed. Common problems included police investigators: failing to interview eyewitnesses; ruling a complaint “unfounded” if the investigator was unable to reach the victim; and failing to interview more than one officer, even if there were several at the scene.
“We don’t see too many consequences for bad police officers,” Rivera said. “The consequences are (for) those in the community – people being harmed, people being falsely accused of crimes, people being sent to prison who might not have been sent to prison if IA was working properly.”
Claims of abuses affected departments regardless of size, the Press’ investigation found. For example, the tiny borough of Absecon in Atlantic County, population 8,300, paid $2 million to settle a 2012 wrongful death case while Newark, population 280,000, settled a bodily injury case for $2 million.
Patrick Colligan, president of the state Police Benevolent Association that represents nearly all 33,000 police officers in the state, said he doesn’t dispute there were problem officers in the past, but today, with many cops being watched with cameras mounted on patrol cars or worn by officers, there is a constant oversight.
However, not all departments – until recently including Jersey City – use such monitoring devices.
Sub-standard police officers leave the force “close to every day in this state,” Colligan said. “Many you don’t hear about, and it shows the departments are doing what they should be doing. … In 2017, there’s nobody tolerating illicit or illegal activity.”
The financial toll
Injury, suit, settlement, silence. Repeat.
The more than $42.7 million of taxpayer money government officials have spent to hush hundreds of allegations of police abuse are enough to fund the education of 2,800 New Jersey school children this year.
In scores of lawsuits, the pattern is the same. Towns routinely take the path of least resistance, at taxpayer expense, to minimize their liability when they face a claim one of their cops violated, hurt or killed someone. Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent, nobody admits wrongdoing and officers accused of misconduct often remain in place.
Of the 531 officers named in suits alleging abuses, at least 231 remain on the job after their employer settled with their accusers, a Press review of employment records found. Many others normally retired years after an allegation.
From a budgetary view, most towns usually feel no financial pain from a lawsuit. That reduces the incentive for changing bad police behavior. A $1 million court settlement against a small
town, for example, can be funded by dozens of municipalities that pool resources to form a joint insurance fund. The payouts are not announced to the public and the final amounts are usually hidden in paperwork that the public never sees.
Often these lawsuits are settled before a jury can resolve the critical question of facts – was excessive force used or were the officer’s actions justified?
After a citizen files a lawsuit, lawyers for both sides and the judge frequently agree that police documents reviewed in the case will be kept secret, preventing public scrutiny of an officer’s history.
In the rare event a settlement comes to light, town leaders echo the same talking points: Legal fees were mounting, but little local tax money was spent to close the case. No admission of wrongdoing was made by the town or the individuals involved. Compared to the specter of costly litigation, it’s much cheaper to settle a lawsuit, they say.
“The system is geared to try to come up with some sort of compromise,” Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said. “I don’t think that you just look at it and say ‘wait a minute there was a settlement here that shows there was impropriety.’ A lot of times they may say, ‘you know what, between all the costs and the liabilities, the exposure, this is better to move on instead of fully litigating.’ The system is not drawn that everybody can get a trial.”
Because every case is different, no set amount determines if a settlement was done to end legal fees or to prevent a multi-million-dollar jury judgment. Of the 243 cases the Press examined from 2010 through 2017, the average settlement payout was $178,000.
Some of the higher six-figure settlements include:
- Homicide — Michael Anthony Burris’ family called for medical help after he fell in 2010 in Millville. After refusing medical attention, he became combative and police handcuffed Burris and shackled him to a stretcher. Burris eventually suffocated. His death was ruled a homicide, but no criminal charges were filed. The town paid his family $875,000 in a settlement. The city denied wrongdoing.
- A beating claim — Philip Dubose settled for $500,000 after he claimed he was punched, kicked and pepper sprayed by Bridgeton officers in 2013. Dubose cannot talk about the case today. “We signed a confidentiality agreement with the police department,” said his lawyer, Alfonso Gambone. “We’re not at liberty to discuss anything else on that.” The city denied wrongdoing.
- Teens left in a freezing van — In 2011, five teenagers were locked in a Fort Lee police van for 15 hours in below freezing temperatures with no food, water, bathroom or warm clothing, according to two lawsuits filed by two of the teens’ parents. In two separate settlements, the teens each received $120,000 from the borough. At least 11 officers named in the lawsuits are still employed by Fort Lee, and their salaries range from $129,800 to $188,976. No admission of wrongdoing was made by Fort Lee.
Police officials often say the plaintiffs who file lawsuits against officers are seeking easy money, and that police are prevented from having their day in court.
“It’s so costly to defend these cases,” said Seaside Park Police Chief Francis Larkin, whose resort town of 13 officers has paid $3 million to settle police abuse allegations since 2007 – an unusually high payout figure for such a small department, the Press found. “There’s always been a hop-off point because of the cost factor involved.”
“It’s a shame that money became part of the whole formula because it would be nice to go forward all the way and show that there was no excessive force used on the part of the officer,” Larkin said. “That, I always thought that there was something wrong with that.”
Seaside Park, though, did have its day in court in 2007. A federal civil court jury found two officers liable for falsifying documents and one of the two liable for using excessive force in the arrest of three tourists. The four were eventually paid $600,000 in the case.
One officer who was a defendant in the civil trial, use-of-force training director James C. Citta, remained on the force – and was later named in 11 more lawsuits involved in the town’s payout of $3 million. The suits were settled without any admission of wrongdoing from the borough or Citta. Citta retired years later on a disability pension. Several efforts to reach Citta were unsuccessful.
Calls to end secrecy
Efforts for reforms are being made.
All police-involved deaths should be investigated by the state Attorney General’s office, not a local prosecutor’s office, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from Essex County and the former speaker of the Assembly, wrote in one of her bills.
“I think that the public is deserving of transparency,” she told the Press.
Families of victims must be assured that there isn’t a coverup of “the circumstances of the death,” Oliver said. “I think there is great interest in doing social justice reform and criminal justice reform in this state.”
Tinton Falls voters took matters into their own hands in 2017 by tossing out their mayor, a former police chief. A major issue in the campaign was once-secret police payouts.
The newly elected mayor of Tinton Falls rode the taxpayer outrage into office Nov. 7 after the Press exposed that $1.1 million was paid to settle two police whistleblower lawsuits.
Vito Perillo, 93, Tinton Falls’ new mayor and a World War II veteran, defeated the incumbent, who was the town’s police chief during the conduct alleged in the $1.1 million settlements. The former chief’s son is a ranking officer on the police force. All government payouts should be publicly announced, Perillo said.
“If it’s legal, they should do it, they should publicize it,” he said in December about the settlements, after his election.
However, invisibility remains the norm in many municipalities. The insurance carrier for many towns refused the Press’ legal open records requests. And in court documents, many court records did not contain settlement amounts.
Open records advocate John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Project, routinely blogs about settlements he’s able to get from towns.
“What I’m hoping is it brings people to realize that maybe we need to fundamentally change the way we view things and concepts like employee privacy,” Paff said. “Because the taxpayer seems to be left completely out of the picture. They’re just the people who are supposed to pay the bills and not ask any questions.”
One law the Legislature and governor can pass is a requirement that all settlement agreements be publicized before they are signed by government officials.
“How are you supposed to have confidence in a system you can’t see work?” Paff said. “It’s just, ‘trust us; we’ve got this under control. You have to trust we’re investigating ourselves in secret, and you need to believe we’re doing the best job for you.’”
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, described opposition she faced from municipal officials when pursuing more open access to government.
“I’ve found almost universally this apoplectic reaction if you mention the words ‘open public records’ or ‘Open Public Meetings Act,'” she said.
“Where it involves public funds, I do not believe there should be a non-disclosure agreement because this is not somebody’s money from their wallet, this is from the taxpayers,” she said.
A judge is sometimes the final arbiter of openness. The Press has sued Neptune to force the township to release its 682-page, 20-year-long internal affairs file on Philip Seidle, the police sergeant who shot his ex-wife to death in the middle of an Asbury Park street in 2015. The township is fighting to keep the file secret, citing a state attorney general directive on confidentiality and the fear that all internal affairs records would be open to the public if the Press wins the case.
Departing Attorney General Christopher Porrino declined to comment after being presented with the Press’ findings. He left office Jan. 16 when the new governor was sworn in. Gov. Phil Murphy’s transition spokesman said the Press’ investigation findings were shared with Murphy’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal.
Fire and police
Flaws in police oversight are personal for Miguel Feliz.
Weeks after the encounter with Jersey City’s police, he winced as he peeled back white bandages to show the pink and red burns covering his arms.
His ordeal started on the evening of June 4 as he drove home after a day delivering groceries in Coney Island, New York.
He was listening to reggaeton. He noticed the police behind him.
Suddenly Feliz’s car was struck from behind by the vehicle Jersey City police were chasing. Feliz’s 1999 Toyota slammed into a utility pole, power wires fell on the hood and the car caught fire.
A bystander filmed on a cellphone as four officers, including MD Khan, approached, with their guns drawn.
“Get down! Get down!” the officers shouted. Two kicks, clearly shown on the recording, immediately follow their commands.
The police union representative said that the officers were merely trying to stamp out the flames.
“No way. No way. There’s no way. Impossible!,” Feliz told the Press. “I had to do all that myself.”
Feliz intends to sue Jersey City for $25 million, according to a legal notice he filed with the municipality.
Four Jersey City officers were indicted following the incident, including two charged with assaulting Feliz. They have pled not guilty and remain on the force, suspended without pay – except for MD Khan.
Jersey City records show that Khan’s termination had nothing to do with Feliz. Khan, a four-year veteran, was fired over money cheated from the city and his disciplinary record.
A vendor paid Khan $232 for off-duty police work. The city said that was a violation of its rules, which require all payments to go through the city. Khan’s attorney declined to comment.
In the transaction, the city would have taken a $32 administrative fee.
Is Khan an aberration among officers? Feliz thinks so.
“There’s good officers out there,” Feliz said. “There really are. Just that some are not.”
‘Pile on the rabbit.’ Inside death by cop
By Andrew Ford and Kala Kachmar
Police misconduct can take lives.
The Asbury Park Press identified at least 19 wrongful death claims at the hands of police in the past 10 years. Following the usual pattern, these cases were settled before a jury could decide whether the force used was excessive. The settlements cost taxpayers $10.8 million in those 19 cases.
In July, the state Supreme Court said the public has the right to see basic information when police fill out official “use of force” reports, which are required when an officer uses force against a citizen. But while the forms have to be filled out, the state Attorney General’s Office doesn’t track the data.
An Asbury Park Press review of use of force reports submitted to the attorney general found at least 58 people killed by New Jersey police since 2010. Nearly always, the reports say those killed were attacking police.
Although each county prosecutor’s office collects use of force reports, not all the reports are available or even accurate. Moreover, no agency is required to analyze the data to find rogue cops.
Some prosecutor’s offices declined outright to provide use of force reports from recent years, even on deadly encounters. Union County demanded $30,400 to produce about five years’ worth of reports.
Summary reports provided by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office show inconsistencies, an issue County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said his office was looking into before a reporter raised the question. Still, the information is not analyzed for trends or hotspots.
“We don’t do anything to the likes of that because we’re not required to,” Gramiccioni said. “I don’t know what we would do, if at all. It’s a piece of intelligence. A piece of information.”
Part of the job
Police officials say injury, even death, to a civilian is sometimes a tragic outcome of policing. Officers are legally entitled to use reasonable force, even deadly force, to subdue dangerous subjects.
Many videos across social media that appear to show abuse are actually standard police practices that permit the use of fists, feet, batons and the weight of several officers to bring a subject resisting arrest under control.
“We are the only field where everybody is an expert in police policy and procedure because they watch a TV show,” said Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association. “If I walked into a trading floor in New York City and told them how to trade stocks or bonds, I’d be laughed out. But there isn’t one single person on this planet that isn’t an expert on police policy and procedure because they watched NYPD Blue one night. And it’s often wrong.”
Death at a Wawa
Keith Briscoe died from suffocation under the 500 pounds of a police pile-on. His death was ruled a homicide and led to a $2.2 million wrongful death payout in Winslow Township.
Briscoe spent his last morning as he did many mornings, smoking a cigarette and drinking a soda outside of a Wawa, before he walked down the street to attend outpatient therapy for schizophrenia.
Winslow Patrolman Sean Richards spotted him on May 3, 2010. Richards came to the convenience store for a hot chocolate. Richards told the Press he saw Briscoe panhandling. Stanley O. King, an attorney representing Briscoe’s family, disputes Richards’ claim.
When Richards left the store, the officer confronted and ultimately forcibly restrained Briscoe. Richards said that Briscoe resisted arrest. But the family’s attorney contends pulling away was a manifestation of Briscoe’s mental condition. No available records say with certainty whether Briscoe was actually panhandling.
Richards said Briscoe was about 6-feet-2, weighing 250 or 260 lbs. Richards, who weighed 270-lbs., said Briscoe threw him around “like a wet rag.” Other responding officers – including Richards’ brother, Kevin – jumped in.
“It wasn’t like he was sitting up and somebody kicked him in the ribs or anything like that,” Sean Richards said of the fight. “It was more like the old saying ‘pile on the rabbit until he stopped moving around.'”
Briscoe did stop moving.
“I guess during the course of being subdued, he stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest, though we performed CPR on him until EMS arrived and he was transported,” Richards said.
Briscoe was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. A medical examiner determined he died due to “positional asphyxia,” according to King.
“Meaning that when the body was on the ground, with the weight of people on top of him, more or less, stopped his breathing,” Richards said. “So, I guess if you put 500 lbs. on your back and lay down, eventually, you can’t breathe.”
Richards said the medical examiner’s findings were accurate.
“We had to do what we had to do to get him under control,” he said. ‘Racial profiling’ pattern?
Richards said he faced the threat of criminal charges including a civil rights violation and official misconduct. The prosecutor’s office told him they could show a pattern of “racial profiling,” Richards said, based on past internal affairs complaints against him.
“I believe what they said is they can set a pattern and argue a pattern like this, that I had a problem with people of color,” Richards said.
He said he didn’t profile people. He felt he was a political scapegoat.
Briscoe was a black man and Richards, who is white, was the subject of another lawsuit alleging excessive force against a black man in 2008 which prompted a $42,500 settlement.
In connection with Briscoe’s case, Richards said he took a plea deal for simple assault, which is a disorderly persons offense. The other charges were never filed.
Richards retired on an annual pension of $46,669 due to a disability caused in part, he claimed, by his struggle with Briscoe.
Though he formally agreed to never work in public safety again as part of his
sentence, Richards is serving as a volunteer firefighter and fire commissioner in nearby Beverly City.
An empty feeling
Though he died in the morning, Briscoe’s relatives were alerted to his death by a newspaper reporter that evening, his mother said.
“Just felt like I was dead too,” Virgin Briscoe said. “It’s just an empty feeling.”
Briscoe’s loved ones sought answers at the hospital where Briscoe was taken in Berlin and at Winslow Police Department, but got little information, Ms. Briscoe said.
“We were just left in the dark,” she said.
They called King and later sued the town, presenting a version of events that differ from what Richards said.
Briscoe, 36, of Waterford, regularly visited a Wawa near a facility where he sought mental health treatment. The morning he died was like many others. His mom gave him some money, he bent down and kissed her.
“See you later, Ma,” she recalled him saying. “Ok, love you,” she replied.
Briscoe went to the Wawa. Richards saw Briscoe and said something like, “I want you to be gone by the time I come out,” according to King.
“I guess he thought (Briscoe) was panhandling,” King said.
Richards returned and asked Briscoe where he was going, offering him a ride to the mental health facility, according to King. Briscoe declined.
“Briscoe put his hands up in the air, backed up to the wall and allegedly said that he was not going anywhere with the cops,” according to the lawsuit.
Richards tried to arrest Briscoe, using force and pepper spray. There was a struggle. Bystanders and other responding officers jumped in to try to restrain Briscoe.
“Unfortunately, once they got off of Mr. Briscoe, he was dead,” King said.
For three years after his death, Virgin Briscoe said, she would go to the Wawa and just sit there, near the place her son died. She recalled how her son liked to dance. He liked to play basketball, mentoring neighborhood kids in the sport.
“I have an empty spot,” she said. “I lost a part of me. He was my oldest child and my only son.”
The hidden cop problem: Sex with teens and stalking
By Andrew Ford and Kala Kachmar
Hanover police officer John Schauder spent months “grooming” a 17-year-old girl for sex, the teen claimed.
The 34-year-old patrol officer met the girl while he was on duty during the summer of 2007 and engaged her in conversation after he discovered she was distraught about her parent’s divorce, the teen claimed.
He texted the teen and met with her repeatedly while on duty, a lawsuit filed on the teen’s behalf later claimed.
The patrol officer groomed the “vulnerable” teenager for a sexual encounter that occurred just a couple weeks after she turned 18 in 2008, her lawsuit claimed. He supplied a 30-pack of beer for a weekend of sex at his home while his wife and child were away, according to the suit. They had sex “on dozens of occasions,” including in his home, in the teen’s home, while on- duty both inside and on top of Schauder’s patrol car, the lawsuit stated.
Schauder’s defense in a court document was that he had a consensual encounter. Hanover’s governing body settled the teen’s suit for $300,000 in 2010.
Hanover and Schauder made no admission of wrongdoing in the settlement agreement. The settlement bars the teenager, now an adult, from talking about the case.
Schauder was later promoted to sergeant. Schauder did not respond to a request for comment.
Police sexual misconduct has been recognized by law enforcement agencies and researchers as a common “hidden” crime that often goes unreported, according to Phillip Stinson. He was the lead investigator of a 2014 Bowling Green State University study that analyzed 548 cases of police sex-related offenses from 2005 through 2007. Research on the topic is limited because only a small number of cases have been exposed, the study found.
The very nature of police work affords rogue cops opportunities to engage in sexual acts against the citizens they are supposed to protect, Stinson stated in the report. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has recognized the magnitude of the problem, holding discussions and issuing guidelines to departments to help them prevent illicit sexual encounters.
About three of four victims were minors in the 548 cases, the study found.
Sexual misconduct was the No. 2 complaint against officers in 2009 and 2010, behind excessive force, a 2010 study by the Cato Institute found.
Sexual misconduct continues because officers who engage in such activities are sometimes protected by a culture of police secrecy and settlement payouts to keep embarrassing situations quiet, according to Franklin A. Porter, a Manhattan psychologist.
Porter has evaluated police officers for fitness for duty and worked with victims of sexual assault involved in litigation with major corporations.
“I think that the institution first and foremost wants to protect its own and also wants to shield itself against negative publicity,” Porter said. “And I think it would tend to create or foster an environment where the individuals working within that system may feel, due to the prevailing attitudes and solidarity, that they might have more license to do things that they might not otherwise do.”
The Asbury Park Press identified seven cases of alleged sexual misconduct or crimes by officers, including towns that collectively paid $1.4 million to settle lawsuits. The cases include: • Coerced sexual act — Plainfield settled for $600,000 after police officer Samuel Woody, now
47, falsely accused a woman of crimes, threatening her with jail time in 2011 to coerce her to perform a sexual act. He was found guilty of official misconduct and criminal sexual contact. He is serving a six-year sentence in state prison.
- Sexual conversation — Garfield settled for $300,000 in 2010 after officer Todd Mosby, now 56, was charged with engaging in a sexual conversation with a teenager in 2006. He was convicted of degrading the morals of a child and sentenced to 1 day in jail, according to conviction records.
- Masturbating lieutenant — East Orange settled for $200,000in 2014 after Lt. Anthony Cook allegedly went to a woman’s home in 2007 and masturbated over her love seat. He was later promoted to captain, and is commander of the department’s professional standards unit. No admission of wrongdoing was made in the settlement.
- Indicted for sex with teens — Rockaway Township Police Officer Wilfredo Guzman is accused of having sex in 2014 and 2015 with two teenage girls and giving them alcohol and prescription medication. He was indicted in November on charges including sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, official misconduct and possession of child pornography, according to court documents. He had pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. No lawsuit has been filed.
‘They can’t get me on nothing’
Asbury Park cop Keith German was confident his department would overlook his aggressive pursuit of a woman – even enlisting Bloods gang members to help him – if he told his supervisors one thing: that he was trying to have sexual relations with her.
“Once you tell the truth, they can’t get me on nothing,” German told a member of the Bloods gang in a call intercepted by investigators. “I said I was trying to (have sex with her) because that’s not illegal.’’
He didn’t just try to have sex with a woman. German sought the help of a man alleged to be the leader of the Bloods gang in Asbury Park to chase after her. In exchange, the Asbury Park officer tipped off gang members to police operations. At one point, German had the gang leader post fliers around town with the woman’s picture, calling her “The Face of HIV.”
After his arrest, German fled from prosecution in 2017 but was soon recaptured.
German was found guilty of eight crimes, including official misconduct, using a computer for stalking and harassing the woman. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison Dec. 19, see video of his sentencing above.
Orange Township Officer Ricardo Arias-Vasquez also expected his department to be complicit in alleged sexual misconduct.
A lawsuit claims Arias-Vasquez was drinking while on-duty in 2015. He got in a patrol car, pulled a woman over, “fondling” her during the stop, the suit claimed. When she went to his department to file a complaint, she was threatened with arrest, placed in custody and Arias- Vasquez was tipped off about her report. He made efforts to discourage her from filing the complaint and the woman received threatening calls, the lawsuit claimed.
Arias-Vasquez was arrested and charged with criminal sexual contact and witness tampering. He later pleaded guilty to obstruction and received a probation sentence, state conviction records show. The woman’s lawsuit against the township is pending. The township denied liability in court documents.
The high cost of pushing out honest officers
By Andrew Ford and Kala Kachmar
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:
- $1.4 million — A jury awarded the amount in 2017 to a former Hamburg officer who claimed he was retaliated against for not dismissing a parking ticket.
- $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. See the video below.
- $1.5 million — A jury awarded this sum in 2017 to a West Long Branch police sergeant, Marlowe Botti, who claimed she was denied a promotion and treated unfairly because she is a woman.
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.
Former Tinton Falls Police Chief Gerald Turning Sr., left, later became township mayor. He was in charge of the police department during an alleged harassment incident and then was in charge of the town with it agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle those harassment claims.
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 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.
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.
John Scrivanic, David’s brother, became chief of the department. The township and officers, through court documents, denied any wrongdoing.
An earlier investigation by the Press exposed the payouts that led to Turning Sr. losing re- election for mayor in November 2017.
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.
“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.”
Money and silence push along bad cops
By Andrew Ford and Kala Kachmar
Getting rid of problem cops can be expensive, even for a large city. When faced with a $3 million legal defense fund from the state PBA that any member police officer can tap into, suspending or terminating a cop in trouble can lead to a costly court battle.
Hence the secret separation agreement.
Through months-long open records requests and legal efforts, the Asbury Park Press was able to access those secret agreements in many cases. It identified at least 68 instances since 2010 in which law enforcement officers with disciplinary issues were allowed to resign, frequently with their town agreeing to drop disciplinary charges and give a neutral reference to future employers. At least four of those officers made claims they were discriminated against or harassed during their employment.
In the process, the 68 officers collectively banked at least $780,000 in payouts, often tied to unused sick and vacation days, benefits they would normally receive if they retired honorably. One officer in Brick Township who resigned after failing a drug test left with $4,165 and his K-9 companion, Kaden, that was trained in detecting narcotics. The officer, Jeffrey Lempicki, declined to comment.
At least three officers moved on to new jobs in law enforcement after facing trouble in one town. An officer’s history of discipline is secret in New Jersey, leaving the public unable to know precisely why these officers weren’t wanted or what allegations of wrongdoing they faced.
One of the three, Burlington Township Patrol Officer Mark Corandan, hired in September 2007, was the subject of an internal affairs investigation and administrative disciplinary charges dated Nov. 3, 2015, according to a settlement Corandan entered into with the township and obtained by the Press. The issues he faced aren’t described in the document.
Corandan requested a department hearing, but the hearing officer determined his termination should be sustained, according to the document. Town officials, though, wanted to avoid the “uncertainty, expense and burden of litigation” if Corandan appealed the firing, the separation agreement disclosed. The township agreed to dismiss the charges and let him move to a neighboring town’s police department. Corandan is now working as a police detective in Beverly City. He didn’t return a call seeking comment.
There is no indication his tenure in Beverly City has had any problems.
Contacted about the deal Corandan made, Burlington Township Administrator Walter J. Corter said he couldn’t discuss personnel matters.
He did say that Beverly City officials know of Corandan’s past.
As a longtime law enforcement leader, Corter expressed concern, in general, about officers moving between departments given New Jersey’s lack of a decertification process.
All but five states in the nation can essentially disbar a troubled police officer, much like lawyers can be barred from practice. New Jersey does not have a decertification process and, as a result, can’t prevent an officer from working unless there is a criminal conviction. In Florida, for example, officers can be removed from service without criminal convictions, for conduct such as engaging in sex while on duty. They’re placed on a public decertification list. Corter said the public and the profession would be better served if there was a formal decertification process in place in New Jersey.
“If you can’t perform your responsibilities as a police officer, and it’s proven that you can’t perform it, then you should lose the right to have that authority to continue as a police officer,” Corter said.
Corter said he was in law enforcement for 37 years, previously serving as a police officer and detective in Burlington Township, the chief of investigations for Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office and the police director for Burlington Township.
Separations like the one Corandan entered into are common across the state, experts say. “When you want a cop to go away, you want the cop to go away and not sue you,” said Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and a retired government official who monitored local government spending. “The cost of settling is cheaper than the cost of litigating.”
If a cop faces discipline, he or she can often quietly resign and secure a promise from the town not to bad-mouth them to a new employer.
“It’s extremely common in New Jersey,” explained Joseph Blaettler, a former deputy chief of police for Union City who testifies in court as an expert witness on police policy. “You did X, Y, Z, but it’s easier for us to just enter into a separation agreement and you go your way, we’ll go our way and that’ll be the end of it.”
1.4 million people at risk in towns that don’t drug test cops
By Andrew Ford and Susanne Cervenka
At least 1.4 million New Jersey residents live in municipalities served by police departments that don’t randomly drug test officers.
Federal regulations mandate that a town randomly test 10 percent of its truck drivers each year. Yet armed police officers do not face the same standard in New Jersey.
Nearly a quarter of the municipal police departments in the state have no mandatory random drug testing policy, the Asbury Park Press found in its survey of all 466 municipal police agencies.
It took the death of a police captain to change one town’s policy.
Deal Police Capt. Earl Alexander died in 2016 after smashing his car into a utility pole while drunk and high on a cocktail that mixed illegal drugs with prescription medication.
At the time his department didn’t randomly drug test police officers. It does now.
But there isn’t a statewide standard, and 113 police departments didn’t provide a policy for mandatory random drug testing in response to the records request made by the Press.
Municipal police departments follow guidelines from the state Attorney General’s office, which do require agencies to test those training to be an officer and when there exists reasonable suspicion an officer is using drugs.
But the guidelines don’t require departments to implement random drug testing and many don’t.
Agencies as large as Elizabeth, with 294 officers, or as small as South Harrison Township, with five officers, has no random drug test policy.
The state Attorney General could mandate, with a one-word change to existing policy, that all departments randomly drug test officers. The policy states that officers “may” be randomly tested rather than the more definitive “must” be tested.
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office goes a step beyond the state guidelines, requiring that 20 percent of municipal police officers be tested annually in each department. Yet several towns in the county provided no random testing policy in response to the request made by the Press. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Al Della Fave stressed that every department in the county is following the prosecutor’s office standard.
In an interview, Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Grammiccioni said he didn’t know if he could command departments in his county to randomly test officers, raising concern about the costs of tests, which he estimated to be up to $300 each.
“You take a town like Middletown with 100-some cops and they wouldn’t be happy if I were mandating that,” Gramiccioni said. “With that said, they have their own internal random drug testing policies.”
They don’t, the Press found in its survey of police departments.
Middletown provided documents that call for random drug testing “of only those employees for whom random and post-accident drug testing is required by current [Department of Transportation] regulations.” The policies for law enforcement only call for testing before employment, for trainees and when there’s reasonable suspicion an officer is impaired.
At least 30 of the 45 municipal police departments in Monmouth County don’t have a mandatory random drug testing policy, the Press found.
After being interviewed for this story in September, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office said it would issue a countywide drug testing policy to take effect in 2018. Gramiccioni and his spokesman, though, wouldn’t elaborate on it or say whether it will require random testing.
A cocktail of narcotics
Deal Police Capt. Earl Alexander IV was like a “guardian angel,” said his wife, Julie Alexander.
“I said that to him one time,” Mrs. Alexander recalled. “I felt so safe with him.”
Earl Alexander was born and raised in Ocean Township, not too far from where he worked in Deal. Together the couple hiked, biked and swam regularly. They dreamed of camping in all 50 states and Mrs. Alexander estimated they made it to 15. They spoiled their rottweiler, Oscar. They had two children.
Earl aspired to participate in local politics, maybe run for mayor, maybe become a certified business administrator. He was confident.
“And then that seemed to have passed,” Mrs. Alexander said. “That seemed to have went away, that confidence.”
Alexander became haunted by the gruesome scenes he encountered through police work – a drowning swimmer, a person crushed by a firetruck, Mrs. Alexander said. They spoke of him dealing with “traumatic stress,” she said.
“Nobody knows what we have to go through,” she recalled him saying of the job.
Though his son shared his namesake, Alexander didn’t want Earl V to share his profession.
Their marriage faltered. Mrs. Alexander made allegations of his substance abuse in divorce filings. Alexander filed for bankruptcy in April 2015, court documents show. He was suspended from his department in August 2015 on suspicion of drug use, according to his chief.
Julie said she found out in October 2015 he had gone to a rehabilitation clinic. He told her he was an alcoholic but denied using drugs, she said.
She last saw him Dec. 30, 2015. They hung out at his house and chatted like old times, like friends.
The bankruptcy weighed on him. He felt like friends had turned their backs on him in his time of need.
On the evening of Jan. 1, 2016, they made arrangements for him to pick up the children the next morning.
He didn’t make it there.
In the early morning hours Jan. 2 2016, Alexander died when he lost control of his car and struck a utility pole in a residential neighborhood.
An autopsy, released to the Press through an open records request, found he was impaired by a combination of illegal narcotics, prescription drugs and alcohol.
At the time, the 18-officer department didn’t have a policy for random drug tests.
The Deal department has since instituted random testing, Chief Ronen Neuman said.
“After the incident that happened with Capt. Alexander, I spoke with the prosecutor and he told me it’s totally up to – you know, there’s no Attorney General directive or nothing that mandates it (drug testing). And so, I figured for our peace of mind, we’ll just do random drug testing once or twice a year.”
The department now randomly tests at least two officers at least once a year. Neuman declined to say if any failed a test.
Presented with the Press’ findings, PBA president Patrick Colligan said police departments ought to randomly drug test officers.
“I think they should,” he said. “Absolutely. I’m shocked to have you tell me some don’t. I think that’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Bad cops are built. Here’s how.
By Kala Kachmar and Andrew Ford
When departments fail to adequately supervise cops, the public is put at risk.
In one example, a federal judge wrote in 2007 that a jury could find Atlantic City turned a “blind eye” to one officer who she derided as “short-fused” and “volatile.” That officer, Andrew Jaques, remained a police officer for 10 more years, leaving in August 2017 on an unspecified medical disability, according to town records.
Jaques, 39, was the subject of at least five internal affairs investigations in an eight-month period in 2001 and 2002, according to federal civil court records. He was fired in 2006, but later reinstated by the Civil Service Commission, records show.
At least one of the internal affairs investigations was handled by his uncle, a sergeant in the department’s internal affairs unit, court documents revealed.
Internal affairs complaints accused Jaques of losing his temper in traffic stops and allegedly abusing his girlfriend, bludgeoning a bicyclist and choking a restrained man unconscious in the 2001 and 2002 period.
He also had a pending disciplinary charge for which he received a 30-day “punishment of record” before officially leaving the department. The pending charge was not released by the city. Jaques had been on medical leave since May 2017.
One excessive force lawsuit against Jaques and the Atlantic City Police Department filed in 2016 is pending. The city refused to release the terms of the settlement from a second suit. In its separation agreement with Jaques, the city said it would give a neutral reference to any future employers about his tenure as a city police officer. He didn’t receive payment for any used time, but the city agreed to support his request for a disability pension.
Police accountability in New Jersey starts and often ends with the judgment of police chiefs, who determine if they will pursue allegations of misconduct against an officer. With hundreds of chiefs across the state and little oversight, the quality of that enforcement varies widely, the Asbury Park Press found.
From 2010 through 2016, citizens filed at least 37,456 internal affairs complaints against cops throughout New Jersey.
No one on the outside knows what happened with those complaints. The details of the complaints and any action taken against police officers are secret.
The internal affairs system in New Jersey is so broken that attorney Gregg L. Zeff said he tells clients abused by police not to bother filing a complaint.
Zeff has pursued police and prison abuse and defense cases for 30 years in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but also represented police officers in discrimination claims, whistleblower incidents and employment disputes.
“Internal affairs is very much like a human resources department of a corporation,” the Philadelphia-based attorney said. “They’re not there to support the employee or the citizen; they’re really there to protect the police.
“In taking your statement, they’re going to look at you as if ‘why did you deserve to get beaten?’”
Law abiding officers are done a disservice by lacking supervision, according to Samuel DeMaio, who took over as Bloomfield’s public safety director in 2014 after conducting an eight-month-long study of the department and its problems.
Two Bloomfield officers went to prison after beating a man during a traffic stop and lying in police reports.
Orlando Trinidad and Sean Courter had a history of internal affairs complaints regarding alleged assaults and excessive force, DeMaio said. But no one at the department ever reviewed the allegations.
Trinidad and Courter “were done an injustice by this police department,” DeMaio said. “There were no systems in place to identify clear signs of the direction that they were heading in.”
In one brutal example, Trinidad mocked his department’s mechanism for watching cops, a lawsuit claimed. In 2013, after beating and almost ripping the ear off an unarmed man, Rodolfo Crespo, in the department’s holding area, Trinidad walked to a nearby surveillance camera, looked up, pointed and said “IA” – the initials for the police department’s internal affairs unit, the man claimed in his lawsuit.
The city settled the Crespo suit, who claims he suffered a massive laceration to his right ear, a thoracic spine fracture and multiple head traumas. They agreed to a $363,910 payout. As is standard practice in settlements, no admission of wrongdoing was made by the city.
The Bloomfield Police Department in Essex County knew of at least 37 documented incidents where Trinidad allegedly used force over eight years – beginning when he started with the department in 2006. His use of force incidents made up about 27 percent of the 135 force reports documented by all officers in a 10-year period, one suit claimed.
Lacking standards for psychological testing
Paterson Patrolman Manuel Avila’s mental health was in question. He was hospitalized in 2004 after mixing the sleep aid Ambien with wine, an internal affairs captain recalled in court testimony. He was hospitalized again and his gun was taken away in 2005 after his worried brother called police. Responding officers saw Avila go outside in the winter wearing just a t- shirt and sneakers, appearing agitated.
After swallowing many sleeping pills and spending five days in a psych ward in 2007, a psychologist determined Avila shouldn’t carry a gun, court testimony showed.
“And he should, therefore, leave the police department,” Capt. Troy Oswald said in court, quoting from a letter the doctor wrote.
But Avila was close to his 20th year of service with the department, a milestone that would entitle him to collect 50 percent of his salary in a pension.
“Officer Avila had 19-and-a-half years on the department and what I really wanted to do is let him get to his 20th year,” Oswald testified.
The department reached out to the doctor again and got him to approve their plan to have Avila remain on duty – without a gun – booking inmates.
“(The doctor) felt that there was no problem of danger to others as long as he’s just moving prisoners and he’s not carrying a gun,” Oswald testified. The chief made a decision to place him in the cell block watching over prisoners, he said.
About a month after serving on the cell block, Avila was accused of forcing a woman in custody to perform oral sex on him.
Avila was later acquitted of a sexual assault and other charges. But his department spent nine years and at least $1.8 million in taxpayer money in an attempt to fire him. The city ultimately settled by allowing Avila to resign and seek a police pension.
Avila could not be reached for comment.
The removal was an expensive and damaging debacle that illustrates the troubling intersection of psychology and police behavior. Even when warning flags are raised, police agencies are hamstrung when trying to keep troubled officers away from the public.
While the common perception is that innocent civilians are injured or killed when a cop “snaps,” that is seldom the case, peer-reviewed, professional studies show. Violent, even deadly, tendencies build over time and can be fueled by police department politics and domestic disharmony, rather than the stress of policing.
A healthy, well-adjusted officer – even if exposed to an extreme stressor – won’t “snap,” said Laurence Miller, a Florida-based police and forensic psychologist who’s known nationally as an expert in police psychology. There’s always a progression of whatever is smoldering beneath the surface – even if it’s overlooked.
How supervisors handle officers who misbehave, whether it’s major or minor, sends a message to the rest of the officers, Miller said.
No statewide psychological testing standards
There’s no law in New Jersey that governs how a psychologist should evaluate an officer or that requires a psychologist have training in police psychology. Standards of conduct vary across the several hundred departments in the state.
“You get into situations where completely untrained, unqualified psychologists are putting their two cents in for purposes of these appeals,” police psychologist Matthew Guller said. “I would never do a child custody evaluation or even a business assessment. It’s not my specialty. It’s like a tax lawyer taking on a divorce.”
Guller is a partner at the Institute for Forensic Psychology based in Oakland, a firm responsible for psychological testing for more than half of the state’s police departments.
Although New Jersey doesn’t mandate psychological screenings for officers, it’s considered a best practice, Guller said. Most police departments in the state do screen new hires or transfers, especially officers who carry weapons.
How flawed department culture builds bad cops
The way a department handles misconduct, enforces its rules and instructs its officers – or doesn’t – influences police conduct, according to a 2004 report, “Organizational Culture and Police Misconduct,” by University of Virginia School of Law Professor Barbara E. Armacost. When an incident of police misconduct becomes public, departments tend to distance themselves from the officer by characterizing them as “rogue” instead of looking at the organizational norms and policies that framed the cop’s judgment in the first place, Armacost said.
A police officer’s stress comes more from the police organization than the job itself, a body of research that began in the early 1990s has consistently shown.
By nature, police officers don’t make decisions as individuals. They’re embedded in organizations adherent to a chain of command. If an officer is told by a superior to do something he or she thinks is wrong, the officer must decide to defy authority or obey the superior. Both decisions could carry punishment and send a confusing message, according to Armacost.
Favoritism during the disciplinary process – because of friendships, political associations and nepotism – significantly contributes to lower officer performance, according to the study “Organizational Stressors and Police Performance,” by Jon M. Shane, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
One of the most effective philosophies for managing police behavior is one that supports its officers, but in return they can’t betray the trust, Miller said. Officers can’t expect the department to defend misbehavior.
“It’s a hard, thin line to walk on,” he said.
Scholars say that personality is only one element of what might play into police aggression or misconduct, according to a 1994 National Institute of Justice report, “The Role of Police Psychology in Controlling Excessive Force,” which experts say is still relevant today.
“If you start out with a thin-skinned, self-entitled attitude, even the slightest amount of pushback on the part of the citizen may elicit an overreaction,” Miller said. “Because that
officer by nature takes everything personally, (he or she) has not put on that objectivity and professional detachment.”
The report also found that most police psychologists said they were more likely to be involved with counseling and evaluating officers as a response to an excessive force incident rather than training and monitoring behavior for prevention.
Pre-employment psych evaluations will catch most individuals with major personality disorders, like a sociopath, or a person who lacks a conscience, Miller said.
Some may squeak by, but it’s more common to see officers who have less severe traits that resemble characteristics of antisocial, narcissistic and paranoid disorders pass the evaluation, he said.
These individuals tend to be a little bit damaged going in, but not necessarily noticeable. Sometimes years on the job can bring those issues to the surface or exacerbate the traits, according to Miller.
Free to pursue a police job
Avila, the former Paterson cop, is appealing to the state for a $72,000 annual pension, which would include credit for the six years he was suspended.
Because Avila was not convicted at trial, and since New Jersey has no police officer decertification process, his status is no different than any of the other 33,000 police officers in New Jersey.
And if Avila foregoes retirement, he is free to seek another policing job.