Trenton police officer charged for chemical attack that resulted in death

Joseph Ahr Sr.

A state grand jury has voted to file a criminal charge against a Trenton police officer in connection with the officer’s use of pepper spray during an encounter with a 64-year-old grandfather with underlying medical conditions, who died 18 days after being pepper sprayed during his arrest in 2020.

The Office of the Attorney General today said Officer Nicholas Piotrowski was indicted on one count of official misconduct in connection with the death of Joseph Ahr Sr.

Ahr, who graduated from Trenton Central High School and was employed by Amtrak in New York City, NY for over 20 years, before he died at the age of 64 on July 24, 2020, in Trenton, 18 days after Piotrowski struck him and repeatedly deployed pepper spray at close range directly in his face.

During a brief standoff, officers pulled Ahr. from his front door, took him to the ground and handcuffed him during a struggle in which an officer used pepper spray.

The officers were looking for his namesake son, who had been outside with Ahr moments earlier but had gone back inside, and Ahr was blocking the police from entering the residence.

The son had called 911 over a domestic dispute in which his father was not involved, when officers arrived, the elder Ahr answered the door and demanded to see a warrant, without which he said he would refuse them entry.

After a few minutes of arguing, a police supervisor ordered officers to detain Ahr, at which point several of them forcefully and violently brought down Ahr onto the porch steps.

New Jersey residents called to serve on the grand jury decided that the charge should be filed relating to the force that Piotrowski used during the arrest of Joseph Ahr Sr., 64, of Trenton.

The grand jury did not return charges directly related to the death of Ahr, who was hospitalized and later died following that arrest on July 6, 2020.

“Police officers are required to be measured in their use of force in every encounter, even under challenging conditions,” said Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin. “In New Jersey, we take this obligation seriously and my office thoroughly and independently investigates and presents to a grand jury every death that occurs during an encounter with law enforcement. This officer resorted to using pepper spray during a confrontation with a civilian in a manner that was unnecessary and contrary to his training, mishandling a situation that could have concluded so much differently.”

“Under the law and the Attorney General’s Use of Force Policy, officers are permitted to use only force which is reasonable and necessary,” said Thomas J. Eicher, Executive Director of OPIA. “The grand jury found that Officer Piotrowski should be indicted for official misconduct because his force did not meet that basic standard.”

The fatal police encounter was investigated by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) and presented to the grand jury in accordance with Directive 2019-4, the “Independent Prosecutor Directive,” issued in 2019.

“Charge the officers responsible, because they now caused his death,” said family attorney Robin Lord, who filed a wrongful death action against the city. “They should be suspended without pay and immediately charged with a criminal offense.”

When Trenton police arrived Lord says, “They pulled him out of his house, put him on the ground, assaulted and maced him. He was living and breathing fine in his home before the police got there.”

In July 2021, OPIA issued standard operating procedures (“SOPs”) to ensure these grand jury presentations are conducted in a neutral, objective manner, and with appropriate transparency regarding the process, consistent with the Independent Prosecutor Directive.

The investigation of this officer-involved fatality included interviews of witnesses, collection of forensic evidence, review of video footage, and autopsy results from the medical examiner.

After hearing testimony and evidence from the investigation, the grand jury concluded its deliberations on Tuesday, January 3, 2023, and voted “true bill,” meaning the grand jury determined this criminal charge against the officer was warranted.

According to the investigation, officers of the Trenton Police Department responded to Ahr’s home in the 700 block of Monmouth Street around 5:30 p.m. on July 6, 2020, after police received a call from the man’s son.

Trenton officers arrived and initially spoke to the son, who answered the front door.

Joseph Ahr Sr. then came to the door to speak to the officers. After the son went into the house, Ahr remained on the porch and engaged in a verbal dispute with the officers.

Officers tried to detain Ahr and he pulled away. Officers then took Ahr to the ground, restrained him, and handcuffed him. During the encounter, Piotrowski struck Ahr and deployed pepper spray at close range directly in his face on multiple occasions.

While the officers were handcuffing Ahr, he stated several times that he could not breathe.

After he was sitting up, Ahr complained about other medical issues, and officers summoned emergency medical personnel. EMS personnel responded to the scene, examined Ahr, treated him with oxygen, and transported him to Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton.

Ahr was admitted to the hospital, where he died 18 days later on July 24, 2020.

The medical examiner concluded that the manner of death was homicide, with the cause of death listed as “acute respiratory failure following the use of pepper spray during arrest of an individual with chronic pulmonary disease and COVID-19.”

A finding of “homicide” by the medical examiner indicates that another person or persons contributed to the death. It does not establish criminal liability or determine whether the actions of the other persons were legally justified.

If convicted, Piotrowski could face up to 10 years in prison.

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