2 cops in prison, lawsuit pays $243K — Can NJ town turn around police force?
BLOOMFIELD — A man who claimed he was "physically assaulted and severely beaten" by two police officers following a 2013 traffic accident has reached a settlement with the township in a lawsuit, which will pay him more than $200,000.
The lawsuit tied the incident to a pattern of problems for a department that has been beset by controversy. Last year, two police officers who lied about an arrest that was caught on camera were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
One of those police officers — Orlando Trinidad — is also the subject of this settled lawsuit.
The lawsuit stemmed from an incident in March 2013 when township resident Rodolfo Crespo was arrested after an accident and taken to police headquarters where he said officers Trinidad and Jennifer P. Horn assaulted him.
Claiming excessive force, Crespo's lawsuit also cited other examples of abuses by the department and blamed the administration and the township for a "massive coverup of the incident."
Crespo claimed in his lawsuit that while he was trying to make a phone call, Trinidad grabbed him by the throat and threw him and pinned him to the floor. He said Horn and Trinidad punched him in the head and that Trinidad "landed a brutal punch to Mr. Crespo's head so forcefully, Mr. Crespo's right ear was practically ripped from his head."
Rather than providing first aid, Crespo's suit said officers tried to cover up the incident entirely. He was eventually taken to the hospital for treatment. The lawsuit also said that Crespo's incident report did not mention the assault or his injuries.
The lawsuit also cites other examples of "unjustified use of force, false arrest, coverups, and malicious prosecution" by members of the department.
That includes Marcus Jeter, who was arrested in June 2012 and charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest. Video from a second dashcam, which the suit says was "concealed" by the town and the police department, eventually exonerated Jeter and led to criminal charges against officers Sean Courter and Trinidad.
The township is also facing a lawsuit from the Jeter incident.
Shortly after the Jeter incident, Byszheir Jones and his friends were arrested on armed robbery, assault, and other charges despite witnesses providing alibis. According to Crespo's lawsuit, those charges were "later mysteriously dismissed."
Officer Trinidad was involved in all these incidents. The lawsuit said over the course of 10 years, Trinidad had close to 40 use-of-force incidents documented on his record, and that Horn had nine incidents during that time.
In light of these incidents, the lawsuit called the internal affairs unit of the department "a complete sham, and, as such, created an environment wherein officers believe they can act unlawfully without any repercussions or discipline."
According to a copy of the settlement obtained by open-government activist John Paff, Crespo received a settlement of $243,250 from the township.
Township Manager Matthew Watkins said he had only been on the job around a month when the Crespo incident occurred but said there has been a concerted effort to improve.
"It's unfortunate, but it's settled," he said. "Lots has changed in our police department so this occurrence never happens again."
Some of those changes include training and working to get higher levels of accreditation. According to the department's website, the department completed accreditation from the New Jersey Chiefs of Police Association, which is valid for a three-year period.
A study last year by Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy & Research found evidence to suggest that township police were targeting minority drivers. Officials, however, called attention to what they said are the study's serious flaws.
The township's newsletter noted a 22 percent drop in complaints against the department from 2015 to 2016, even as arrests increased by 200 percent.
"This is not just something accomplished on paper," said Police Director Samuel DeMaio in the newsletter. "It's a new philosophy of policing, and it's impressed on everyone from command staff to the newest officers."
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