Atlantic City must turn over full Internal Affairs reports in an excessive-force lawsuit against two police officers who have previously faced nearly 80 complaints between them, a federal judge has ruled.
Summaries of the complaints against the officers were previously produced, but that is not enough to determine whether the plaintiff's allegations that officers were improperly trained or that the city is "deliberately indifferent to the violent propensities of its police officers," U.S. District Judge Joel Schneider ruled.
None of the complaints against Officer Sterling Wheaten or Sgt. Frank Timek was upheld when investigated by Internal Affairs. But, the judge pointed out in his ruling, "not one of the hundreds of excessive force complaints" against any city police has been sustained by these investigations.
"It is an unfair portrayal of these officers to judge them simply on the number of complaints received through the Internal Affairs Unit," Atlantic City PBA President Paul Barbere said. "It's unfortunate, but it's become an occupational hazard for police officers who are proactive in their work ethic as criminals routinely make complaints against them in hopes it will help them with their court proceedings, both criminal and civil."
In this case, Matthew Groark alleges that he and his girlfriend were at Dusk in Caesars Atlantic City on Aug. 7, 2010, when they approached Wheaten and Timek, who were working a security detail there, for assistance.
Groark said that when the officers shined a light in the couples' eyes, he asked why and then alleges he was thrown down the stairs, punched and repeatedly kneed by the officers. He alleges the attack was unprovoked, and that he then was charged with obstruction of justice, resisting arrest and aggravated assault.
Court records show Groark has no criminal record and that the 2010 charges were dismissed.
The city argued that the previous Internal Affairs complaints were irrelevant because they were not related to the case, and Groark never filed one himself.
The judge called the city's position "disingenuous," and noted the history of Internal Affairs not sustaining any of these allegations.
"In particular, the two officer defendants, Timek and Wheaten, have had scores of complaints lodged against them, none of which resulted in any discipline," Schneider wrote. "This is true even though the officers regularly appear in this court as defendants in ... excessive force cases, several of which are remarkably similar to the instant matter."
But Barbere said the current IA Unit now has "probably some of our best investigators."
The summaries previously provided show that from Sept. 19, 2008, to April 26, 2012, Wheaten had 26 complaints filed against him. One was marked "administratively closed," while the others were either marked "exonerated" or "not sustained." That does not include a videotaped apprehension Wheaten made of Connor Castellani this summer shortly after joining the K-9 Unit. A lawsuit by the family alleges the dog was put on Castellani after he was already under control by several officers and that Wheaten also punched the man.
Timek has 52 complaints in an 11-year period. There is no disposition listed for two of those cases, 49 were exonerated or not sustained. A charge of "unsworn falsification to authorities" on March 20, 2006, was sustained.
Barbere said Timek had more than 1,000 arrests in a 14-year career, including 42 apprehensions and 100 surrenders while a K-9 officer for nearly five years. His then-partner, Vader, has a law named for him.
Every canine apprehension is automatically investigated by Internal Affairs, Barbere said, adding "it's almost biased to then hold these complaint numbers against the officers."
Barbere said Wheaten has been recognized with dozens of awards, and worked on units that responds to the "highest priority calls in the highest crime areas of the city."
The city requested an extension Monday to get the full reports to the court, which will now be due Dec. 16.
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