Settled in Silence: Politicians quietly pay for claims of police excessive force

Taxpayers are often left in the dark by politicians who have spent more than $3 billion to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers, among them many that have been repeatedly accused of wrongdoing.

Unlike cases that make headlines, such as the $27 million Minneapolis paid to the family of George Floyd or the $12 million paid to Breonna Taylor’s family, most claims of police misconduct are resolved quietly and with smaller sums.

Cities say payments to resolve misconduct allegations, ranging from excessive force to illegal search and seizure, are more cost-effective than fighting lawsuits in court but since such settlements rarely involve admissions of wrongdoing, they allow misconduct to be repeated.

How much cities pay — and who the responsible officers are — is generally hidden from the public, whose taxes often cover these costs.

To shed some light on the process, Washington Post reporters spent more than a year filing public records requests and combing through court documents to connect nearly 40,000 payments to specific officers. That investigation documented nearly 40,000 payments involving allegations of police misconduct in 25 of the nation’s largest police departments, totaling over $3 billion.

At least $60 million has been spent on such court-sanctioned payoffs in New Jersey, which has 550 law enforcement agencies including municipal police departments, county sheriff’s offices, state police, and other specialized agencies.

In March 2023, Wharton Borough paid $125,000 Frank Amendola, a Mine Hill man who claimed that officers beat him, breaking his wrist in April 2017. Police Sergeant John Roon. along with Officers Gregory Garcia and Richard Ornelas, confronted him at home in his driveway, allegedly assaulted him, and charged him with various offenses. The victim suffered significant injuries, including a wrist fracture and a dislocated ulnar joint which required surgery, and Amendola’s wife also claimed damages.

In May 2023, Clifton City settled a lawsuit by female officer Jessenia Levy for $80,000, alleging sexual harassment by Lt. Darren Brodie. Levy reported unwanted advances, including inappropriate comments, leading to medical leave. An Internal Affairs investigation upheld some charges against Brodie, who was suspended, demoted, and reinstated after training but on June 7, 2023, Clifton settled with the Lieutenant for $12,976.95 on condition of dropping claims against the city filed in retaliation for the disciplinary action.

In April 2023, Linden City settled a lawsuit for $85,000 with Rayvon Leverette, who alleged false arrest and six-day jail time. Leverette claimed Officer James Garrison falsely accused him of a high-speed chase he wasn’t involved in. Despite presenting evidence of being at work during the chase, Leverette was arrested, leading to his job loss and employment challenges. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office eventually dropped the charge.

Elizabeth Police
Elizabeth Police Department

The City of Elizabeth settled a false arrest lawsuit by paying $99,500 to Carlos Gonzalez, a diabetic man wrongly arrested as a drunk driver. Gonzalez experienced a diabetic emergency while driving, but officers mistook it for intoxication and arrested him. Officers failed to recognize his medical distress and ignored his pleas for help. Gonzalez claimed his arrest was due to profiling practices within the Elizabeth Police Department. A judge highlighted the need for officer training in distinguishing between intoxication and medical distress.

In March 2023, Trenton agreed to pay $575,000 to settle a lawsuit by the estate of a man who died after being pepper-sprayed and beaten by police, and improperly restrained by hospital staff. Officers used excessive force on Kevin Higgenbotham, a bipolar man who called 9-1-1 and whose mother wanted him removed from the house. After an officer used pepper spray and struck him with a baton while the man was handcuffed in a police vehicle, Higgenbotham became unresponsive before he suffered cardiac arrest and respiratory failure.

On March 7, 2023, the Borough of Bound Brook agreed to pay $675,000 to Alfred Lawson, a Rahway man who claimed that four police officers “violently punched” him in the face numerous times while his hands were cuffed behind his back. Lawson claimed that the officers falsified their reports in an attempt to cover up their alleged misdeeds and that no meaningful investigation of the incident was conducted.

None of the allegations have been proven in court, and the settlements don’t imply guilt, so many of the offending officers remain on the jobs, and more than a few have been promoted after they engaged in excessive force and other misconduct.

New Jersey State Police

The New Jersey State Police is the largest state police agency in the United States, with over 3,000 sworn officers with jurisdiction over all areas that are not covered by a municipal police department.

The largest municipal police department in New Jersey is the Newark Police Department, with over 1,300 sworn officers.

In addition to the municipal police departments, county sheriff’s offices are responsible for providing court security and transporting prisoners. A number of specialized law enforcement agencies—such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, the Delaware River Port Authority Police Department, and the New Jersey Transit Police Department—have responsibilities in specific areas, such as airports, bridges, and mass transit systems.

The New Jersey Supreme Court decided in March 2022, that the public has a broad right to access certain information about serious police misconduct under common law, a landmark ruling could deter police abuse and lay out a novel pathway to improve accountability in other states.

The court unanimously ruled that the Union County Prosecutor’s Office must release an internal affairs report that found the director of the Elizabeth Police Department had made racist and misogynistic comments about his staff over the course of many years. James Cosgrove, the former civilian head of the department for more than two decades, resigned in 2019 soon after the investigation was completed.

A directive from the state Attorney General requires each law enforcement agency in New Jersey to submit an annual report of all major disciplinary actions imposed on its officers, such as terminations, reductions in rank, or suspension of more than five days.

Citizens can find each annual report, as well as links to download the major discipline data in Excel format, at the Attorney General’s website.

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