Was a South Jersey police officer justified in slapping a 13-year-old girl in the face while she was lying on the ground and forcibly pushing her head down as he tried to handcuff her?
A Camden County jury will decide.
Gloucester Township Police Officer John Flinn, 29, who remains suspended after the March 8, 2018, incident at the Twin Oaks group home for juveniles with emotional issues, is charged with endangering the welfare of a child and two counts of official misconduct. He is not in custody.
In his closing argument Tuesday in Camden County Superior Court, defense attorney Louis Barbone contended that Flinn had to use force, and was justified in doing so, to arrest the girl, who Barbone said was resisting Flinn and another officer.
“This was a guy who was doing nothing more than trying to do his job,” Barbone told jurors. After the girl was cuffed, Flinn helped her and asked if she was injured, he said. “He never intended to harm, cause pain to” her, the attorney said.
But Assistant Prosecutor Angela Seixas told jurors in her closing argument that the case was “about excessive force.” Police are allowed to use force, but it has to be reasonable and immediately necessary. That was not the case here, she said.
“They do not have the ability, the right, to strike, to slap, to kick any subject they encounter,” she said.
During the trial, which began with opening statements a week ago, jurors saw video footage from a body camera worn by another police officer, Paul Bertini, who with Flinn was trying to subdue the girl in an office of the group home after she had been fighting with and resisting two staff workers.
The officers responded to the home about 6:30 that night for a report of “juveniles fighting” and “using objects as weapons,” Barbone said, recalling the 911 call to police.
The video showed Bertini approaching the girl and repeatedly telling her to “Calm down!” The girl was punching and kicking the staff workers and telling them she wanted to get out, Barbone said.
“The staff was trying to restrain her,” Barbone said. “They failed.” Bertini had to force her onto the ground in “a takedown,” the attorney said.
With the girl facedown as she lay on top of a sleeping bag and other items, Flinn cuffed her left wrist behind her back. Bertini was trying to control her right arm, also behind her back.
That’s when Flinn was seen and heard in the video slapping the girl twice on the right side of her face. She was heard moaning and crying in the video.
As Flinn tried to cuff her right wrist, he told the girl: “Stop playing these ... games,” then twice pushed down the left side of her face. Flinn then finished cuffing her, and Bertini left to check on another problem in the home.
Flinn has been with the Gloucester Township Police Department since 2015.