A man who sued Atlantic City police after three officers punched and kicked him and allowed a police dog to sink its teeth into his thigh won his case Thursday after a month-long trial in U.S. District Court in Camden.
A jury found that Atlantic City bore responsibility for failing to properly train and monitor its officers, but only awarded the plaintiff $300,500 in compensatory damages and nothing in punitive damages.
"They didn't want to punish the officers," said Jennifer Bonjean, the lawyer for Steven Stadler, 49, of Ocean City, N.J., who sustained extensive injuries when police arrested him March 13, 2013, for attempting to break into the coin box at a car wash. The jury ruled against retired Officer John Devlin, the K-9 handler, but in favor of Officer Glenn Abrams, who was off duty when he first spotted and chased after Stadler, and Officer William Moore, who arrived on the scene to arrest him.
At the trial, Tracy Riley, who represented the officers, underscored that Stadler had been committing a crime, had given a false name to police, and ultimately pleaded guilty to resisting arrest. He was unreliable, she argued, because he had consumed a large amount of crack cocaine, six Percocets, and two 40-ounce bottles of beer that day.
"He's embellishing his story against these officers," she said in her closing statement.
Court filings in the case showed extensive Internal Affairs excessive-force complaints against Abrams and Devlin, though none was sustained.
According to the complaint histories cited in the filings but not allowed to be introduced at trial, Abrams was accused of punching and kicking at least six people from 2007 to 2012. In many of the complaints, the complainants said that they were not aware he was an officer, or that he took them by surprise with a punch to the face.
In one 2009 incident, according to the filing, he stole a woman's puppy while executing a search warrant in her home; a subsequent search of his car revealed a "cornucopia" of confiscated drugs and weapons.
Morris Fairbarn, representing the city, told the jury in his closing that Atlantic City officers are trained in the appropriate use of force — and that in Stadler's case, they acted within those bounds.
"As these officers are trained, what matters is, are they justified in using the force to accomplish the law-enforcement objective?" he said. "And when you look into the evidence in the case, you see that the reason we're here five years later, the reason force was needed to take him into custody, is because of the decisions that he makes."
Bonjean said she has settled two lawsuits against Atlantic City police — including a $3 million settlement for David Castellini, whose beating by officers and attack by a K-9 was caught on video — and won two more.
"Yet many of these bad officers are still on the force and being promoted, and they're not training them on anything different. Nothing's changed," she said.
Excessive force complaints are almost never sustained, and though an early warning system was meant to alert police leadership about officers with numerous complaints, testimony in the trial suggested that did not happen.
Bonjean is set to begin another case against Atlantic City on April 9. Anthony Moore claims that Detective Franco Sydnor assaulted him at Bally's casino while breaking up a rowdy bachelor party.
A motion filed by Sydnor's lawyer on March 7 seeks to suppress testimony and Internal Affairs complaints against Sydnor, including allegations that he: forced a woman to perform oral sex on him, grabbed a woman by the throat and pushed her to the ground, beat and Maced a man, stabbed another man, and punched two other men in the face.