Bordentown Township's new top law enforcement officer told a civil rights group Thursday night that the police department has made a "360-degree" turn and enacted sweeping changes following the arrest of the former police chief of the Burlington County community on hate crime and civil rights violation charges.
Acting Chief Brian Pesce met for more than an hour with the Southern Burlington County NAACP chapter and community leaders at Bethel A.M.E, Church in Moorestown.
Chapter president Crystal D. Charley praised Pesce for accepting the group's invitation and answering sometimes tough questions from the audience. Pesce was asked about cultural diversity training, what steps the department has taken to weed out bad officers, and how the behavior of former Chief Frank M. Nucera Jr. went unnoticed.
"My hope is that this is taken seriously beyond the hype," Charley said. "If we're unwilling to have the tough conversations, we'll never get to progress."
Pesce, who succeeded Nucera in February, urged the audience of about 35 people to refrain from judging the entire department based on the alleged civil rights violations by Nucera.
"This was the action of one person," Pesce told the gathering in the church's fellowship hall. "Please don't let the alleged actions of one person taint the whole town. It's a wonderful town."
Nucera, the longtime top law enforcement officer and township administrator in Bordentown Township, resigned abruptly in January without explanation. Two weeks ago, federal authorities disclosed a complaint against Nucera that thrust the community of about 11,000, about 40 miles northeast of Philadelphia, into the national spotlight..
In a civil rights case, Nucera was charged with a hate crime for allegedly attacking a handcuffed black teen and spewing racial slurs afterward. Authorities said Nucera, a 34-year veteran of the police force, had a "significant history" of making racist comments.
Among the things that federal authorities allege Nucera, 60, said over time are that blacks are "like ISIS, they have no value," and that he could join a firing squad to mow them down. He also deployed police dogs in ways to intimidate black spectators at basketball games, authorities said.
Civil rights leaders from across the region said they had not received any complaints against Nucera, who had been chief since 2006. Many have wondered how the alleged actions by Nucera went unnoticed and unreported.
"I think everyone was shocked by these allegations," Pesce said. He declined to answer some questions that related to the federal probe.
Since taking over in February, Pesce said, he has "hit the ground running" to turn around the department. He said the department has more community outreach and engagement, and recently spent $41,000 to purchase body cameras for every officer. He also recently hired a Hispanic officer and an African American officer.
Chapter member Marcus Sibley expressed skepticism about whether body cameras would make a difference.
"We've seen a lot of footage," Sibley said, referencing instances of unarmed African American men being gunned down by police caught on video. "We've seen a lot of people literally get away with murder."
Recordings made secretly by a fellow officer of racist rants sparked the federal probe of Nucera's allegedly racially motivated use of excessive force against the teenage suspect in 2016.
While one officer who saw the alleged assault exposed Nucera, the federal complaint said another who saw him slam the head of the suspect against a door jamb did not report it "because he was afraid of retaliation" by the chief. His son, Frank III, is a sergeant in the 25-member department.
The charges stem from Sept. 1, 2016, events, during which Nucera allegedly attacked the handcuffed suspect inside the Bordentown Ramada hotel. Nucera made a series of anti-black remarks after the assault, authorities said. The remarks were recorded by an officer who was alarmed by the chief's hostility toward blacks in the predominantly white community.
The 18-year-old in custody was accused of not paying his hotel bill. He was pepper-sprayed and placed in handcuffs, and was being led to the top of a hotel stairwell by two township officers when Nucera arrived. The chief approached the suspect from behind and "slammed his head into a door jamb," according to an affidavit filed by the FBI.
In an incident in 2015 involving another African American suspect whom Nucera suspected of slashing the tires of a police vehicle, the chief allegedly confided in an officer that "these n—s are like ISIS, they have no value. They should line them all up and mow 'em down. I'd like to be on the firing squad, I could do it."
His alleged animosity toward blacks was expressed in various ways, authorities said. Nucera instructed K-9 officers to bring the canines to certain basketball games at Bordentown Regional High School and position their vehicles at the gym entrance to intimidate black patrons, according to the complaint. A similar tactic was used at an apartment complex, authorities said.
Nucera was released on $500,000 bail. He receives an annual pension of $105,992.76, public records show. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.