CAMDEN — Atlantic City police officers were grilled for hours Monday in federal court about the department’s internal affairs policies and how it investigates complaints of excessive force, shedding light on a process attorneys have claimed is a “sham” that gives officers a “slap on the wrist.”
The testimony stemmed from an excessive-force complaint filed by Steven Stadler, who says he was illegally beaten by three Atlantic City officers while being arrested in 2013 after burglarizing a car wash.
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An internal investigation by the Police Department concluded the allegation of excessive force was not substantiated. Police did not interview Stadler for that investigation.
Lt. Lee Hendricks, the commander in charge of internal affairs at the Atlantic City Police Department, testified Monday the department follows all 10 mandated policies by the N.J. Attorney General’s Office, including accepting and investigating all allegations of misconduct by officers and maintaining documents of all internal affairs complaints.
He added all internal affairs complaints are assigned to an officer in the Internal Affairs Unit. That officer conducts an investigation and recommends to the commander whether the allegations are substantiated. The commander reviews the report and, if comfortable with the findings, sends it to the chief of police for final approval, Hendricks testified.
“It’s hard to find officers who are enthusiastic about investigating internal affairs,” Hendricks testified. “They may have gone to the academy or patrolled (with the officer they are investigating) ... It’s not a highly sought-out position.”
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The bulk of the discussion in court Monday surrounded whether Atlantic City follows its own policies and the recommended, but not mandatory, policies from the Attorney General’s Office, specifically when it comes to properly flagging and disciplining officers who trigger the department’s Early Warning System. The system flags officers who accumulate three or more internal affairs complaints in a year.
The three officers who are defendants in this case — Glenn Abrams, William Moore and John Devlin — accumulated 69 internal affairs complaints over a 10-year period. Of those, 38 claimed excessive force, but none were substantiated following internal investigations.
Jennifer Bonjean, an attorney for Stadler, has claimed the department purposely turns a blind eye to and encourages excessive force among its officers.
“(The Police Department) announced to the world that they have an Early Warning System to track their officers. … But to this day I’m not even sure they actually have one,” Bonjean said. “They failed in their function to monitor the officers and track officer conduct.”
Bonjean added that since the department has not monitored its officers, it has created a culture where officers believe they can get away with excessive force.
“That attitude led to the three officers now sitting at the defense table,” she said.
An attorney hired by the Atlantic City Solicitor’s Office said he could not comment on the case Monday.
On Monday, Bonjean called to the stand Atlantic City Officer Sterling Wheaten, who has been sued eight times in civil court for alleged excessive force.
One of those was the high-profile case stemming from an incident outside Tropicana Atlantic City in 2013. Wheaten let a dog loose on David Connor Castellani, a Linwood resident who was 20 at the time. Castellani allegedly had been “mouth-ing off” to the officer.
Castellani required hundreds of stitches from the case, which was settled for $3 million in 2017.
On Monday, Wheaten pleaded the Fifth Amend-ment on every question asked by Bonjean because he believes he is under investigation by a grand jury for a potential criminal matter.
Before the court was adjourned, Bonjean said she plans to call Castellani to the stand to testify about his experience with excessive force and Atlantic City police.
On Tuesday, however, the eight-person jury will hear from emergency medical personnel and doctors who treated Stadler after his arrest.