Atlantic City officials and activists called for increased scrutiny Tuesday as more allegations of excessive force surfaced about one of six police officers recorded on video allegedly beating a 20-year-old Linwood man this summer.
David Connor Castellani filed a lawsuit against the city, its police department and six officers Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Camden.
On June 15, Castellani was removed from the Tropicana Casino and Resort. A short time later, at 3:10 a.m., Tropicana surveillance video obtained via subpoena showed him being tackled by police, with a K-9 released on him. Castellani’s injuries required 200 stitches and ongoing physical therapy, family members say.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford said Tuesday he will ask the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee the investigation “in an effort to ensure transparency and to maximize the level of scrutiny.”
The Police Department and the Atlantic City Prosecutors Office already are in the midst of an investigation.
At least six other lawsuits filed in the last three years allege that Sterling Wheaten, the K-9 officer seen in the video, abused his power during the course of arrests. Wheaten graduated from the Atlantic County Police K-9 Academy this May. Tracy Riley, his attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. One of the lawsuits was dismissed and another settled out of court.
Darrin Lorady, the second officer named in Castellani’s suit, does not appear in prior lawsuits filed in state Superior or U.S. district courts.
Millville resident Vernon Kelley said he was angry when he learned that Wheaten had again allegedly assaulted someone while on duty.
In 2010, Kelley said he encountered the officer at an Atlantic City nightclub after an altercation with bouncers. Kelley said he and a friend, who also was detained, were escorted down separately in an elevator.
Once the doors closed, a bouncer told Wheaten that Kelley had hit him. Despite Kelley’s denial, he said Wheaten responded: “This is for you, bro.”
“I had a split second to think and the next thing I know, I’m getting pummeled,” he said.
The beating stopped once the elevator reached the ground floor, Kelley said, but not before his face had been bloodied. Kelley initially took his complaint to Internal Affairs, but said the officers weren’t interested in his story.
“It seemed as if they were the defense team I was speaking to,” he said. “All they’re giving is scenarios of what could have happened.” For instance, Kelley said Internal Affairs suggested his injuries were sustained by the bouncers earlier in the evening and not by Wheaten.
Kelley filed a lawsuit in 2011, but it was settled out of court. He declined to comment on the details of the settlement, but said he had warned a number of city and state authorities about Wheaten.
Internal Affairs documents obtained by an attorney in another of the cases show 21 complaints against Wheaten over a three-year period between 2008 and 2011. Two of those complaints came from then-Chief John Mooney and Deputy Chief Henry White. Both declined to comment Tuesday, with Mooney saying he did not recall the complaint.
Wheaten was one of the officers laid off by the city in 2010. Within 13 days of his return that December, he had another complaint — for excessive force — on his record, filed by White. Mooney’s complaint, filed in 2009, was labeled as “simple assault and standard of conduct.”
“They’ve all been exonerated or not sustained in Internal Affairs because other cops investigated,” said Irwin Facher, who represents one plaintiff, Nicholas Worrall. “It’s a whitewash. Every time, the cops say he’s been using justifiable force.”
Worrall’s suit, which is slated to go to pre-trial conference later this month, alleges he was assaulted by private security and police at a night club in 2010. Facher said he’s represented clients in similar excessive-force cases in Elizabeth and Newark, but the evidence he’s gathered shows the problem is more extensive in Atlantic City.
Steven Young, president of the local chapter of the civil rights organization National Action Network, said the most recent incident confirms what many in Atlantic City knew for years.
“People are feeling, ‘well, this time you have it on tape’,” he said. “Having it on video makes a difference.”
Young said his group is planning a demonstration at which they will demand the officers involved be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. The group also is seeking changes to departmental policy, the launch of a civilian review board — which was approved by City Council in 2012 but never implemented — and sensitivity training for officers.
Police Chief Ernest Jubilee has said the incident is being investigated.
“I just want the investigation to be over so we can move on,” he said Tuesday.
The officers involved, four of whom have not yet been named, remain on duty. Jubilee previously told NBC10, which reported the Castellani video last week, that he “saw no reason to suspend or remove the officers from their regular duties.”
PBA President Paul Barbere said the union “support(s) our officers 100 percent.” He added that he welcomes the mayor’s efforts to have outside oversight.
“If that’s what it takes to investigate this incident, so be it,” Barbere said. “We welcome any investigation that gets all the facts of the case not just some of the facts and part of the video.”
Castellani, meanwhile, still faces charges of aggravated assault on an officer and a police dog, disorderly conduct and resisting.
The lawsuit sheds additional light on the incident. According to the document, Castellani was escorted out of the Boogie Nights nightclub because he was intoxicated while underage.
While Castellani was talking on the phone, a few feet from police, his friends told him to walk to their car at the front of the casino. He asked for the police officers’ assistance in returning to the car.
“Defendant Lorady and Defendants John Doe #1-3 mocked and ridiculed Plaintiff and did nothing to assist Plaintiff — instead ordering him to the other side of Pacific Ave,” the suit reads.
In the video, the officers are not visible as Castellani shouts from across the street, but the suit alleges that the officers “continued to ridicule, taunt and mock Plaintiff who was merely searching for his ride home.”
The suit alleges the officers never directed any commands to Castellani, but at some point — at 3:10 a.m. on the video — they crossed the street to apprehend him.
In addition to punitive damages, Castellani seeks a declaritory judgment that departmental policies are “illegal and unconstitutional” and for the six officers to be prevented from continuing to serve.
Steve Scheffler, who represents Castellani on the criminal charges, said he has issued a subpoena for video from inside the casino, but had not yet received it Tuesday.
The incident has garnered worldwide news coverage, and Castellani’s mother, Terri, said she and her attorney husband, David, were interviewed for Wednesday's episode of the CNN television show Anderson Cooper 360.
“No matter what way you look at it, it can’t be good for Atlantic City,” said Councilman Steven Moore, adding that the police K-9 unit needs to be “more closely supervised.”
Moore said the city’s attorneys will be looking into the most recent allegations. At a minimum, he said, reforms are needed; at a maximum, the city could pull its K-9s off the street, as it did after similar complaints in 2009. The units were restored about a year later.
“I’ll be looking at this closely because everything relates to money,” Moore said, referring to a number of lawsuits alleging excessive force in the department. “Although this is a human-rights situation, it does have its (monetary) value.”
Staff Writer Lynda Cohen contributed to this report.
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