Friday, October 17, 2014

Bridgeton pays $530,000 to settle police racial profiling and excessive force suit.

On November 19, 2010, the City of Bridgeton (Cumberland County) agreed to pay $442,500 to a local man who sued members of the Bridgeton Police Department for allegedly beating him and fabricating charges against him. In addition, the city also paid $87,500 to the man's two co-plaintiffs.

In his suit, Thomas Bard, along with co-plaintiff's Donald Thomas and Jay Hall, all of whom are African-American, alleged generally that the Bridgeton Police Department "entered into a conspiracy to deprive minority residents of the City of Bridgeton of their civil rights under a pretext of combating drug trafficking and 'gang activity.'"  According to the lawsuit, Bridgeton Police had a long history of routinely profiling racial minorities and targeting them for motor vehicle stops, arrests without probable cause and physical assaults.  $442,500 was paid to Plaintiff Thomas Bard. and the city's insurer confirmed that co-plaintiffs Donald Thomas and Jay Hall, Jr were paid $7,500 and $80,000 respectively.

Plaintiff Donald Thomas alleged that on Christmas, December 25, 2008, while at a scene where his aunt was fatally shot, was forcibly pushed by Officer John Sloboda, who is white.  Sloboda allegedly raised his baton and told Thomas that "I'm going to f--- you up."  Although the assembled crowd's reaction caused Sloboda to not follow through on this alleged threat, Thomas alleged that while in municipal court a few months later, Sloboda gave him a summons for driving with a suspended license on a previous date.  Thomas alleged that this was harassment.  He also alleged that Sloboda continued to go out of his way to harass him and that another officer, B. McGuigan, told him: "You're the bulls eye, you're the target, the Bridgeton Police Department is going to kill you."

Plaintiff Thomas Bard, who has a mental impairment, claimed that on May 8, 2009 his mother called police because "her son was acting up and she needed assistance to get him back in the house."  Officers J. Crokus and David Sockriter responded but reportedly quickly lost interest in Bard and instead decided to investigate another man named Stephen Jefferies.  According to the complaint, Crokus and Sockriter followed Jefferies as he crossed a street in the middle of the block and threatened to arrest him for jaywalking.

At this point, the complaint alleges, Bard approached and protested the officers' treatment of Jefferies.  This allegedly resulted in Sockriter hitting Bard with his baton and Crokus macing him.  Sockriter's assault was alleged to be so vicious that another officer, named Kirkbride, had to restrain him.  The complaint alleged that still another officer, Deena Bertolini, had to stop Sockriter from staging another confrontation with Bard so that he could punch him in the face in order to provide cover for the injuries Bard suffered in the first encounter.

Meanwhile, Kirkbride reportedly informed Sergeant Donald Long that Sockriter had actually assaulted Bard, but "Long failed to remove Sockriter from the case and allowed him to complete the processing of the false charges against Thomas Bard which ultimately caused Bard to be placed in jail with a high bail and left there until May 14, 2009."

Plaintiff Jay Hall, Jr. claimed that he was walking in his neighborhood at 11 p.m. on November 5, 2009 when Officers Nicholas Scrivani and David Ringer pulled up and "instituted a 'pedestrian stop' for jaywalking."  Three more police units allegedly arrived shortly thereafter carrying officers William S. Deininger, Thomas A. Garofolo, Shane D. Morgan, Wayne Miller, Jr. and Donald J. Young.  One of the officers, after accusing Hall of providing a false name, allegedly "put on leather gloves and began pounding his fist into his hand" while complaining that "things had been boring that night and they were looking for some action."  Hall, fearing that he would be beaten, allegedly ran away.  The officers allegedly chased Hall down and handcuffed him.  The the officers, joined by Officer C. Blackburn, allegedly punched and kicked Hall even though he was handcuffed and offered no resistance. The officers allegedly "then dragged him face down across the ground to a police car and forcefully pushed him into the rear seat."

All three plaintiffs allege that they attempted to file Internal Affairs complaints against the officers involved but that those complaints were not taken seriously.

Also named in the suit were Bridgeton Police Chief Mark W. Ott, the Mayor and Bridgeton City Council and business administrator, Cumberland County Prosecutor Ronald Casella, First Assistant Prosecutor Kenneth A. Pagliughi and Bridgeton Police officials Burl Kimble and John Battavio

The case is captioned Bard v. Bridgeton, Federal Case No. 1:10-ov-03831 and Bard's attorney was F. Michael Daily of Westmont.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, in which Bard promised to "not take any action to affirmatively notify the news media of
the resolution of this matter."  Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Bard's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $442,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Bridgeton or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Bridgeton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Bard $442,500 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.