In the past year, police abuse cases have permeated the news and the national consciousness, often dividing the country along racial and ideological boundaries. Incidents in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Tulsa, and North Charleston, in that order, have given pause to the thought that these are rare, isolated incidents. The emergence of smartphones as personal recording devices has helped provide footage of what would appear to be a problem possibly hidden from view for quite some time in a national context. With the progression of each incident, the respective police departments have become more willing to break the “thin blue line,” with the latter two cases actually resulting in serious charges filed against the alleged offending officers. Before the events and protests in Ferguson began to bring the issue into everybody’s living room, however, Atlantic City was racking up police-abuse complaints at a stunning pace. The small city currently wrestles with over 30 civil rights lawsuits, and despite the lessons learned over the past year, city officials continue to display a consistent pattern of obfuscation.
One particular lawsuit may offer additional insight into a culture that has led to incident after incident in the city of less than 40,000, albeit with a major tourist economy. U.S. Magistrate, Joel Schneider of the District of New Jersey, is presiding over a case involving Janine Constantino, who is suing the city for showing a “pattern of indifference” toward police misconduct. In a July, 2012 incident, Constantino claimed that she was assaulted at Dusk nightclub inside Caesar’s hotel by security personnel and two Atlantic City police officers. Constantino says that one officer, Sterling Wheaten, took her phone when she tried to videotape the incident, and that the officers filed fake charges against her that were eventually dropped. Judge Schneider has grown weary of what he called “incessant discovery disputes,” and on Monday, April 13th, he ordered Atlantic City officials to release every internal affairs file from 2003 to 2014. Although he previously decided that a sample would be sufficient, the judge changed his mind, ruling that a subset of files would not be representative enough to demonstrate the police force’s conduct. The release of the documents could amount to over 2000 files.
The crux of the dispute is that the city only wants to release files involving the officers involved in the incident, however, plaintiffs’ attorney Jennifer Bonjean wants to demonstrate a pattern of tolerance towards police abuse that has occurred for many years. For its part, the city has dithered greatly in the matter, first reserving the right to argue in trial that a small sample of files would not be representative enough to demonstrate the department’s culture, and then arguing that the judge’s most recent ruling to be “onerous.” Originally agreeing to receive only 721 of the files, Bonjean said “As you can tell from the tone of the opinion, the judge is concerned something is very much amiss in the internal affairs process.”
There is plenty of evidence to support Judge Schneider’s inclination. Most notably, from a 2010 case also involving officer Wheaten which also occurred at Dusk nightclub. During this trial in which Bonjean also represented, a hired expert who reviewed over 70 documents relating to the case, called a subsequent investigation into the incident a “catastrophic failure.” Wheaten was also involved in a 2013 incident in which he allegedly released his K-9 companion on a patron at the Tropicana Casino and Resort. The incident was videotaped by the casino’s surveillance and the footage made national news last year, causing a minor uproar prior to the more high-profile incidents. Wheaten was cleared criminally for the incident, and the alleged victim, David Castillani, is currently fighting criminal charges including assault of a police officer. Castillani, however, is a plaintiff in another federal suit against Wheaten and the department.
The city claims to have revamped its internal affairs process after the first Dusk incident, yet production of documentation for several additional lawsuits since 2012 have also become problematic for the courts. Also, despite the alleged overhaul and the sheer volume of allegations, internal investigations into these cases have failed to produce any substantiated results. These external factors help to boost Bonjean’s argument as well as give the Judge Schneider reason to be suspicious. Both sides will meet shortly to discuss the logistics of the document transfer.
Nj.com/South Jersey Times – Steven Cupiani
New Jersey Law Journal – Charles Toutant
Press of Atlantic City – Craig McCarthy
Press of Atlantic City – Lydia Cohen