Indicted cops roughed up a Black teen, then fought to keep it secret. No more | Editorial

Published: Nov. 23, 2021

Three Ewing cops just got indicted on Friday for using excessive force in 2018 on a Black teenager suspected of stealing a car.

One of them stepped on the 16-year-old’s head, pressing it into the snow as he lay face down without resisting, while other officers handcuffed him behind his back. “What’d you do,” a cop asked, as another officer kicked snow in the kid’s face. Then a different cop pushed his foot onto the teen’s head.

This was all captured on police body camera footage. None of the officers using excessive force had even been asked for assistance in handcuffing the teen, which was already under control, the indictment notes. Which raises the question: Why did it take three years for them to face any public consequences?

Too often, we only learn about officer misconduct in New Jersey when it turns criminal and there’s a charge, which is rare, or someone sues or goes to the press on his own. This is yet another example of why we need the police transparency bill stalled in our Legislature that provides public access to internal affairs files, which 14 states already allow.

Even after the feds got involved, we still have no clue about the disciplinary history of these cops – Retired Lt. Michael Delahanty and Officers Matthew Przemieniecki and Justin Ubry – or whether they faced any internal punishment before this indictment. The New Jersey Attorney General and Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office haven’t said why they didn’t bring charges against any of the officers involved after previously reviewing the incident.

And we might never have known about it at all if a retired Ewing cop, Lalena Lamson, hadn’t come forward with a whistleblower lawsuit in 2019, and The Trentonian newspaper hadn’t filed a public records request for the bodycam video. Reporter Isaac Avilucea told us he received an anonymous letter in 2018 outlining the general allegations, but it took him three years to get the footage because Ewing spent nearly $200k to try to keep the records secret from the public.

Bodycam footage is generally released in New Jersey, but Ewing based its resistance on the notion that its department had to protect this juvenile’s identity. Yet redaction of the kid’s face and other identifying information is sufficient to do that, as an appellate court ultimately ruled. Ewing’s refusal to comply seemed “more about desiring secrecy than protecting privacy,” says CJ Griffin, the public records attorney who won this case in a two-year legal fight.

The police department ultimately turned over a single sheet of paper that didn’t have much on it: a report filed about force used, revealing only that one officer said he used a compliance hold to get control of the teenager. Herein lies the problem with relying solely on officer-created reports, as Griffin notes: Police can write what they want. They don’t have to include the boots on the kid’s head, or the snow kicked in his face.

Videos also help shine a light, but again, it took the public several years to gain access to the footage in this case. What we need is the ability to immediately review all complaints filed against officers and how they were investigated, as the police transparency bill before the Legislature would allow. Why did these cops, who are now facing prison time, get no more than a slap on the wrist from top brass – if that?

Ewing has reported no incidents of major discipline against any officer, according to The Trentonian. Again, we got no answers. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office said only that they won’t comment on a pending case and referred the matter back to the Mercer County Prosecutor, whose office did not return our call for comment on Monday.

It shouldn’t take an indictment from the feds for the people of New Jersey to find out about criminal misconduct by their own police.

Do you like this post?

Showing 1 reaction

published this page in News and Politics 2021-11-24 03:21:07 -0800