Newark resident Rasheed Moore was driving toward the intersection of 18th Avenue and S. 13th Street in January, 2005, when his vehicle collided with an on-duty police car containing Newark police officers Matthew Ruane and Pasquale Popolizio.
Thirteen gunshots later -- all fired by Officer Ruane against the unarmed driver -- Moore was dead. Five years later, in December 2009, the municipality shelled out $1 million to Moore’s family in a settlement after a jury concluded that the officers had used excessive force against Moore.
Hundreds of similar allegations and stories over the past several years have prompted the Justice Department to launch a federal investigation of the Newark Police Department, digging into claims that the force has treated Newark’s citizens discriminatorily, brutally and illegally.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez announced the investigation on Monday in a joint press conference with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.
“[The] investigation will examine allegations of excessive force, unconstitutional stops, searches and seizures, discriminatory policing on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity, whether detainees confined to holding cells are subjected to unreasonable risk of harm, and whether officers retaliate against citizens who legally attempt to observe or record police activity,” said Perez in a statement on Monday.
Justice Department officials have since declined to cite specific cases of abuse that sparked to the probe, but the stacks of settled and pending lawsuits against the City of Newark and a 96-page extensive report by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey filed last September begin to fill in the gaps of why the investigation was deemed warranted.
In the filing, the ACLU detailed more than 400 claims of inappropriate police conduct, allegations that reveal both external problems such as excessive force against citizens and internal problems such as department infighting that has hindered the force’s ability to adequately punish officers who have committed abuses. Taken together, the claims paint the picture of a police force allegedly riddled with systematic and systemic failures.
The City of Newark has settled dozens of civil court cases, like Moore’s, between January 2008 and January 2010. In one such case, settled in May 2010, NPD officer Michael Walker was charged with punching a man named Cornell Pendergrass in the face so many times that Pendergrass’s jaw had to be wired shut for weeks after the incident, which occurred in June 2006. The alleged beating was caught on videotape by an onlooker, Minisiah Gbor, who kept recording until she, too, was allegedly attacked by officer Walker and his partner Larry Brown.
In another case, Warren Lee was sitting in a parked car on Sherman Avenue when he was approached by NPD Lt. Neil Minovich and Sgt. Anthony Costa, who suspected that Lee had drugs inside his car. Minovich and Costa allegedly beat Lee until he stopped breathing and lost consciousness. Believing that the man was faking his distress or that it was induced by swallowing drugs, the officers did not call an ambulance, and Lee died on the scene. The case, brought as a wrongful death suit by Lee’s father, was later settled for $60,000.
Other settled cases include officers accused of raiding and ransacking a home, causing a fire that resulted in a mother and her children being burned, and holding suspects for multiple days without reasonable suspicion or explanation.
According to the ACLU, litigation settlements have cost the municipality more than $4 million of taxpayer money since January 2008.
More than two dozen suits are still pending, the bulk of which are for excessive force or false arrest. According to the claims outlined in one pending suit, Morris v. The City of Newark in the New Jersey District Court, police officer Jeffrey Bouie—flanked by four other officers—assaulted Trace Morris until he was unconscious and partially paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries. The case then alleges that Morris was transported to the Newark city jail, rather than the hospital, where he was ignored for three days, unable to move, covered in his own urine and feces.
These cases are but a selection of the hundreds of allegations outlined in the ACLU’s filing last September, which was a petition to Mr. Perez asking for a federal investigation.
“What amazed and upset me most was the sheer volume [of allegations],” said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, who spoke out against the police practices under Mayor Booker’s tenure to HuffPost in 2009.
“You don’t understand the trauma of police brutality unless you have experienced it,” Jacobs said. “The impact is forever.”
The Justice Department has since said that the ACLU’s filing is but one of a number of factors that led to the decision to investigate, noting that the Department undertook its own preliminary investigation before announcing the full probe. The Department has undertaken similar civil investigations in dozens of other cities in the past decade, including a massive one in New Orleans in 2010.