By Kevin Shea | For NJ.com
On the morning of Oct. 17, Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora and city Police Director Steve Wilson were summoned to the federal building in the city and informed the Department of Justice had started a Civil Rights investigation of the police department.
They hadn’t seen it coming, the mayor said.
Not two hours later, the feds announced how they planned to examine how police officers deal with the public in a variety of situations, from routine traffic stops to highly charged interactions like people suffering mental crises.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, and U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Philip R. Sellinger, said investigators had been collecting complaints, evidence and data – including public news stories – which had produced concerns that officers might be using unnecessary force, escalating incidents and conducting warrantless searches that violate the Constitution.
It’s called a “pattern-or-practice” investigation, or P&P, and will take about a year. The DOJ will issue a report of their findings, or publicly say they found no violations.
Almost a month later, the city, community groups, a longtime police critic and the police themselves all welcome the investigation – but for very different reasons.
Gusciora, who is in his second term as mayor, has consistently said Trenton suffers the same problems that other cities face: a flood of out-of-state guns and a “wave of fentanyl that has come across America.”
It’s a toxic mix that causes obvious public safety problems for residents and police, and combatting it is a delicate balance and a constant struggle to be tough on enforcement while building relationships with residents, he said.
When he first learned of the investigation, “My reaction was that, you know, what is the U.S. Attorney doing to prevent guns that are flooding into the state?”
The mayor says he’s well aware of prior instances of allegations of excessive force against police officers, and police should absolutely be investigated locally or federally if accused. “But we have hundreds of police that go out there every day and do the right thing and keep neighborhoods safe.”
He understands people can be dissatisfied by police at times, but those people also, “wanna make sure that a gun is not pointed at them either by bad guy that’s out there.”
“So we have to balance things and make sure that that on the one hand, police are doing everything above board, but citizens should be supportive of the police coming in their neighborhoods to continue to keep them safe to the best of their ability,” he said.
Gusciora’s main concern of the investigation, for which he’s ordered cooperation from all city officials, is the possibly “chilling” effect on the individual officer.
“I’m really concerned about that,” he said. “That you’ll have police that are reluctant to get out of the (police car) because it’s their perception (from residents) that maybe they’re out there to do more harm than good.”
Overall, Gusciora was clear that he does not see any issues that infect the entire department. “I don’t think that it’s anything systemic.”
Michael Schiaretti, president of the police officer’s union, wasn’t too surprised by the investigation, considering an FBI agent has been visiting the department for about five years to collect information.
Some senior officers know the agent, Vernon Addison, by sight. They and Schiaretti say he’s been compiling reports, body camera footage and other information of incidents in which force was used.
“And in that time, [the FBI] has brought one case to prosecution, and the officers were acquitted,” Schiaretti said.
He was referring to the federal trial earlier this year of officer Drew Inman and ex-officer Anthony Villanueva, who were accused of using excessive force on a suspect in 2017. (Addison was the lead investigator on the case.)
Some officers believe that since the federal prosecutors lost in court, their next tool was the P&P investigation. “It’s hard not to think one is related to the other,” Schiaretti said.
Schiaretti said he hears that the DOJ will look at things like training, supervision and internal affairs reforms, something that the officers and union want too. It’s also something that they’ve pushed for years, via funding. But that’s been difficult to attain, he said, since the city remains under state oversight by the Department of Community Affairs – which controls budgetary expenses.
The department still has not fully rebounded from the layoffs of over 100 officers in 2011, and combined with the tight state purse strings, Schiaretti said he hopes the investigation will lead to funds.
Like the mayor, Schiaretti does not believe the feds will find Trenton police suffering from any department-wide concerns.
“I do not expect any smoking gun to emerge where there’s been widespread corruption and violation of people’s rights,” he said. “And I think the men and women of the police department, by and large, come to work every day looking to make a positive impact for the citizens of Trenton.
In their announcement of the investigation, Clarke and Sellinger said repeatedly said no one incident or event led to the P&P.
But Sellinger led off his remarks by describing a Sept. 12 town hall meeting his office held in a city church.
“One community member after another voiced concerns about how officers of the Trenton Police Department treat the people of Trenton,” he said. “They raised concerns about excessive force. Concerns about stops and searches done for no good reason. They also put into words the impact that potentially unconstitutional policing can have on the community: a lack of trust in law enforcement—as well as fear.”
One person wrote a note to authorities that said: “We[’re] scared of the law because they don’t like us.”
The Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, pastor at the North Trenton church, Greater Mount Zion AME, organized the meeting. He’s also the director of Salvation and Social Justice, a statewide group that has been working with federal authorities on issues in other cities around the state.
One of Salvation and Social Justice’s missions is to mobilizing community, and that is what they did in September.
First off, he said, the organization and church did not have it out for Trenton police.
“We did not have any explicit intent to get the police department investigated. I want to make that very clear,” Boyer said.
Boyer said the job was to bring together residents who are not typically at public meetings, like politicians and the middle class. “Our job was to get folks on the ground, you know, who typically aren’t in these spaces, into the room.”
“Our major goal was to let them know what levers of government they could pull.”
Boyer said the meeting was full and went beyond its scheduled time, with several residents breaking into one-on-one discussions with members of Sellinger’s team for about an hour.
“For this kind of situation to have occurred and for that kind of voice from the community, a lot of pent-up frustration for many, many, many years, is something that is obviously needed,” Boyer said.
“So, as much as we had no intent in all of this, it’s obvious that the community’s voice was heard,” he added.
The Trenton NAACP, which also sponsored the meeting, was more direct in its reaction to the federal investigation.
“We at the Trenton NAACP are ecstatic that this investigation is happening,” President Austin J. Edwards said during a press conference in front of police headquarters a few days after the federal announcement.
Edwards said that in the days he’d been sharing the news, the reaction in the community was “Finally.”
“Finally, there’s a chance of justice, and finally we can have peace on our community,” he said.
Trenton-based defense attorney Robin Lord has been the police department’s chief critic since the 1990s. She’s sued the city, department and officers, and defends clients arrested by city police by criticizing their tactics in court.
In one way, she said she is not surprised the feds are acting. In her trademark bluntness, she called the police force, “a cesspool.”
She believes the department needs to be wiped clean and started from scratch to have any chance of changing. “Everyone must go,” she said.
This is years in the making due to years of inaction by the county prosecutor’s office and the state Attorney General’s office, who have failed to meaningfully address or prosecute any police misconduct allegations,” Lord said.
As a younger lawyer in the 1990s, Lord said she kept hearing from her clients that Trenton officers were using excessive force. So she compiled them, made an appointment with city and county authorities to present her findings.
“They didn’t do a damn thing,” she said. “The only thing they did was cause the cops to harass my clients more.”
So she started filing civil lawsuits to address the behavior and get justice for her clients, Lord said. “And we get settlements. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars and it doesn’t come out of their pocket. And they don’t get disciplined for it.”
“They do not learn in that regard,” she said.
Lord also sues on behalf of city officers. She recently filed an intent to sue the department on behalf of a Jewish Trenton officer who claims someone left a Santa Claus doll at his workplace with an antisemitic slur. After the news broke, the officer returned to the department and was harassed anew by a supervisor, the lawyer claimed.
“They don’t have respect for themselves. They can’t be expected to have respect for the citizens in the town that they patrol,” Lord said.
Overall, Lord said: “I’m hopeful that the fact that the federal government is independently looking into what happens there might make a difference, but I doubt it.”
Kevin Shea may be reached at email@example.com
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