Feds to probe Trenton police for ‘problematic’ use of force and illegal stops

by Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation into Trenton and its police department, citing concerns that officers use excessive force and routinely, illegally stop and search pedestrians and motorists without reason or warrants.

Investigators will probe “problematic” uses of force against people stopped for minor traffic offenses and those who were cooperating or already restrained, said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division.

They’ll also investigate allegations that officers have used force to punish people observing or questioning their actions and that officers have escalated tensions with residents, injuring people in mental health crises, Clarke said in announcing the probe Tuesday.

“These allegations are serious and credible, and our investigation will seek to establish whether these allegations are true,” Clarke said. “Effective policing requires public trust. When law enforcement officers violate the Constitution and federal law, it erodes trust and undermines public safety efforts.”

U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger said investigators will try to determine if the department has an unconstitutional, systemic “pattern or practice” of police behavior. The investigation is expected to take up to a year. A similar probe against Newark police a decade ago resulted in a 2014 consent decree that required the department to adopt reforms.

Investigators haven’t gotten specific reports of racial profiling, but 49% of the 7-square-mile capital city’s 90,000 residents are Black, while 37% are Hispanic or Latino, census figures show.

“We do not allege racial discrimination here. We are going to follow the facts and the law. We are aware, of course, that there is a sizable population of people of color within Trenton,” Clarke said.

Investigators will review use-of-force reports, court records, news media reports of police brutality and misconduct, officers’ body camera footage, officer training materials, and policies on how the department investigates citizen complaints and disciplines officers, Clarke said. They’ll also meet with police staff, observe officers on duty, and meet with the public, she added.

“As we begin this investigation, we recognize the challenges that Trenton and the Trenton Police Department face in addressing violent crime,” Clarke said. “But meeting these challenges requires confidence by the public that the police are committed to protecting them. It requires the assurance that police do not hold themselves above the law.”

Sellinger said he attended a town hall five weeks ago in Trenton where residents “raised concerns about excessive force, concerns about stops and searches done for no good reason.” Still, he and Clarke said no single incident prompted the probe.

But Trenton police have a long history of brutality and alarming encounters that have resulted in lawsuits and indictments:

An officer was criminally indicted last year for pepper-spraying an elderly man, Joseph Ahr, on his porch after officers went to the home to talk to his son in 2020. Ahr died three weeks later.Two officers were charged in 2019 for beating a man after a routine traffic stop.An officer’s 2022 shooting of an unarmed motorist, which left him paralyzed, drove the city council president to demand more transparency and ask for the police director’s resignation. The director, Steve Wilson, remains in charge, and a Mercer County grand jury deemed the shooting justified.Officers made headlines in 2020 after they restrained a man in mental crisis by kneeling on him as he lay face-down in the dirt until he fell limp. He was declared dead minutes later.

In the state’s most recent report on major discipline meted out to law enforcement officers statewide, just one Trenton officer faced major discipline — for using a police department wash ticket to wash his personal vehicle. The police department has about 250 officers, and Trenton is the state’s fifth largest city.

Wilson’s office referred questions to Mayor Reed Gusciora, a Democrat who was a longtime state Assemblyman until he became Trenton mayor in 2018.Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora (Edwin J. Torres Governor’s Office)

In a statement, Gusciora said he learned of the investigation Tuesday morning and has instructed all levels of city government to fully cooperate.

“My administration knows all too well the difficulty and danger police officers face on a daily basis. We thank and support the overwhelming majority of officers at the city, county, and state level who do the right things every day to keep Trentonians safe,” Gusciora said.

He credited Trenton officers for seizing drugs, more than 200 guns, and $133,722 from gun and drug traffickers in recent months.

“But we also recognize that the community’s trust in our police force is critical,” Gusciora said. “If any members of law enforcement violate the public trust or act in contravention of our state and federal laws, they should and must be held accountable.”

Patrick Colligan and Michael Cipriano, who head the state and city Policemen’s Benevolent Association, respectively, put out a joint statement that they “understand and respect the purpose” of the investigation and “remain committed to transparency, accountability, and continuous improvement.”

“However, we hope that this inquiry will also shed light on the pressing need for additional resources and support for our officers,” the statement read.

Trenton police respond to more than 100,000 calls for service a year, including 41 shootings in just the past month alone, Colligan and Cipriano said.

“Our police headquarters is in dire need of repair, and resources have been limited. The loss of 105 officers in 2012 has had a lasting impact, and we have yet to recover to a safe staffing level,” they said. “Retention of officers remains a significant concern, with the Covid-19 pandemic adding unprecedented burdens to our staffing levels.”

Sellinger said investigators’ goal is to improve policing.

“The object of a pattern and practice investigation is not to assign blame,” Sellinger said. “It’s to help fix problems that may exist. Whatever our findings may be, our ultimate goal is to ensure that the people of Trenton are served by a police force that effectively fights crime while respecting the constitutional rights of every person.”

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