CAMDEN Atlantic City and one of its police officers must pay $250,000 each in compensatory damages after a jury found the officer used excessive force against a man and the department failed to provide proper training to its officers.
Michael Troso, 39, a former New Jersey deputy attorney general, sued the city and five of its officers after an incident at the Trump Marina on the night of his bachelor party Aug. 9, 2008.
The Wednesday evening verdict came as Atlantic City and the lone officer found at fault, Sterling Wheaten, a K-9 handler, are being sued in at least five separate federal lawsuits.
Troso was awarded the $500,000 following a trial in District Court in Camden in which he testified he was brutally assaulted by the officers on the hood of a police car after approaching them to inquire about a friend who was being arrested.
The jury rejected the complaints against the four additional officers.
During the one-week trial, jurors saw surveillance video showing Wheaten yanking Troso away from the other officers, talking to him, and leading him to the hood of a police car.
The footage of what happened next is blurry. Troso said he was punched repeatedly and photos show blood left on the hood of the car.
The officers testified that Troso interfered with their investigation and shoved his Attorney General's Office badge at them, saying he'd "have their badges."
But none of the officers had an answer for how Troso was injured or why a use-of-force report filed within the Atlantic City Police Department was changed from saying Troso suffered no injuries to saying that he did.
Defense attorney Tracy Riley argued that Troso was trying to cover up his behavior that night and could have changed the form himself through his law enforcement connections to perpetuate a lie and avoid an obstruction-of-justice charge.
That charge was dismissed in Municipal Court. Troso was terminated from his job and is now a Cherry Hill-based lawyer.
Wheaten, an officer for five years with the department, is being sued along with Atlantic City in five additional cases alleging excessive force or assault in federal court. Wheaten is being sued in two suits in state court alleging excessive force.
Previously Wheaten has been the subject of more than a dozen internal affairs investigations and 21 civilian complaints of misconduct, none of which were substantiated, according to court records.
He is also named in a June 2013 complaint involving a man who said he was violently assaulted and then attacked by Wheaten's K-9 partner. In a complaint, David Castellani of Linwood accuses Wheaten of setting the dog on him after he was already lying face down on the ground, surrounded by police. A video of the attack resulted in outrage from the Atlantic City mayor and promises of an investigation by the Attorney General's Office.
Neither the City of Atlantic City nor the Police Department returned multiple calls for comment Thursday. Riley, who spoke on Wheaten's behalf, said Wheaten is still an active member of the department and she would appeal the verdict.
Troso spoke on the stand about how the night ruined his career, nearly broke up his marriage, and cast a pall over his wedding and honeymoon.
His attorney, William Buckman, called the verdict "vindication following brutality."
"He still does not have the career that he worked for and enjoyed when this outrage was done to him," Buckman said.
Buckman said he hoped the department of roughly 300 officers took the verdict as an opportunity to regroup and retrain, but said the recent onslaught of lawsuits does not suggest any effort to change.
"When you have a department of this relatively small size that is over and over again implicated in the type of horrific violence that we're seeing," he said, "one would really question whether anyone at the top or anywhere in authority cares or is even watching."