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Camden County police officer charged with punching unarmed suspect

A Camden police officer has been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly punching an unarmed suspect and falsifying a police report.

A Camden County Metro police officer has been charged with beating an unarmed suspect. (FILE) ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
A Camden County Metro police officer has been charged with beating an unarmed suspect. (FILE) ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff PhotographerRead moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON

A Camden County police officer captured on video apparently punching an unarmed suspect this year on the streets of Camden has been charged with assault and trying to cover up the beating, authorities said Friday.

Nicholas Romantino, 25, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., was charged in a two-count indictment, said U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito. He was charged with violating the civil rights of Edward Minguela of Camden on Feb. 22.

At a brief hearing Friday, Romantino told U.S. District Judge Joel Schneider that he understood his rights and the charges against him. He was released on a $50,000 unsecured bond and ordered not to leave New Jersey. He left the Camden federal courthouse without commenting.

>>READ MORE: Three Camden police officers removed from duty over alleged assault

The beating was recorded by a Camden liquor store's surveillance camera and has been viewed thousands of times on social media. The black-and-white video appears to show Romantino pushing the 32-year-old Minguela to the ground and punching him in the back of the head about a dozen times.

Romantino and two other officers were removed from street duty pending the outcome of an investigation by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, but the office said in March that any criminal charges had been put on hold pending an unspecified investigation. The two other officers, whose names were not released, have returned to duty, a spokesman said Friday.

According to the indictment, Romantino, a two-year veteran of the Camden County force, responded to a dispatcher's report of a "man with a gun" in the area of Collings and New Hampshire Roads in the city's Fairview section. Romantino was one of several police officers who responded.

When officers arrived at the location, another officer stopped Minguela and told him to put his hands up, and Minguela complied, the indictment says. Romantino approached  Minguela from behind and tried to pull his arm behind his back, which startled Minguela, the indictment said. He reacted by pulling his arm away from Romantino, and the officer then threw Minguela to the ground.

Romantino rolled Minguela onto his stomach, and another officer grabbed Minguela's legs while a second officer grabbed his right arm, according to the indictment. Romantino grabbed Minguela's left hand.

The indictment does not identify Minguela as the victim, but Minguela and his attorney have said that Minguela is the man in the video.

"Romantino, without provocation, punched the victim multiple times in the back of his head," according to documents in the case.

Minguela was treated for a broken wrist, bruising, and a concussion. He was charged with resisting arrest and obstruction. A weapon was not found.

His civil attorney, Devon M. Jacob, has demanded that the charges be dismissed and has said that he plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit on Minguela's behalf.

Jacob did not immediately return a message left at his law office.

A spokeswoman for Camden County Prosecutor Mary Eva Colalillo did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Romantino underwent treatment at Virtua Hospital in Camden for injuries to his right hand that he suffered as a result of punching Minguela in the head, prosecutors said.

At the Camden County police station, Romantino allegedly submitted a fraudulent report seeking to justify actions against Minguela, the indictment says. The report falsely stated that the victim "placed his left hand under his chest and began to try [to] lift himself off the ground. Due to the fact that the male was trying to lift himself up and I was unable to see his right hand I began to strike the male in the head with a closed fist  …."

The Camden County Police Department operates only in the City of Camden.

Romantino remains suspended without pay, according to the department. His lawyer, Daniel E. Rybeck, declined comment after Friday's court hearing.

If convicted on the civil rights charge, Romantino could face up to 10 years in prison and up to 20 years on the false records charge in addition to a $250,000 fine. A Nov. 28 status conference was scheduled before U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler.