The Atlantic City Police Department’s policies that allegedly allowed rogue officers to violate suspects’ rights will go on trial Tuesday in a federal civil suit against three officers brought by a convicted burglar.
Steven Stadler, 49, of Somers Point, alleges he was punched and kicked until he was unconscious after an off-duty officer found him burglarizing the lockbox of a car wash on March 13, 2013.
Jury selection is happening Tuesday, with openings expected to begin Wednesday.
Stadler’s mug shot from the arrest shows his left eye bruised and swollen shut, with bloody contusions on his forehead and over his right eye.
The suit filed in Camden Federal Court alleges that the off-duty officer who was in plain clothes and driving his personal vehicle did not identify himself as he tried to stop Stadler, and that he already had surrendered to a uniform officer when he was punched and kicked.
The beating continued after Stadler was handcuffed, and he was unconscious when the K-9 officer released his dog, according to the suit against the three officers and the city.
Stadler “suffered permanent physical disability from the beating and mauling, along with overwhelming emotional trauma,” the suit states.
Stadler is also suing the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center doctor who treated him, for allowing “substandard care of patients who are in police custody.”
Atlantic City police gave a much different view of the arrest in a release at the time.
The off-duty officer identified himself as a police officer when he ordered Stadler to stop, the department’s spokeswoman said at the time.
Stadler then dropped the items and punched the officer in the face, according to the police report.
The K-9 officer showed up as the two were engaged in a scuffle and ordered Stadler to stop resisting or he would be bit, the report said. When Stadler didn’t, the dog apprehended him with a bite.
The off-duty officer was treated for a cut on his nose and hands.
Stadler was later charged in an earlier burglary at the same car wash.
Stadler eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary causing no bodily injury and/or unarmed. He was sentenced to 364 days in the Atlantic County Justice Facility. He actually served 461 days in jail, court records show.
He was in court on a violation of probation in that case in October, according to court records.
The officers’ civil rights violating actions were the result of an environment within the department that protected rogue officers and made it difficult for anyone to file Internal Affairs reports, attorney Jennifer Bonjean wrote in the complaint.
Two of the three officers in the suit have been sued before for excessive force. One recently retired.
At the time the suit was filed in 2013, Atlantic City was defending against claims of excessive force by members of its police department in at least 16 separate federal civil rights actions, including some by Bonjean.
One resulted in a $3 million settlement in September.
The department has worked on improving Internal Affairs issues, and instituted an Early Warning Alert System and body-worn cameras a few years ago in trying to address the problem.
In 2013, there were 217 IA complaints for the year, about 7½ percent of the 2,882 arrests made that year. There were 42 excessive force complaints.
Last year, there were 57 IA complaints, less than 2 percent of the 3,222 arrests.
Chief Henry White credited that reduction to the alert system and the cameras.
“Every uniformed officer is now issued a (body-worn camera),” he wrote in the 2017 end-of-year report. “Supervisors will routinely select certain calls for service and watch all of the officer’s BWC’s from that particular incident to ensure that officers are acting in accordance with departmental policies. The BWC also aides our Internal Affairs detectives with their investigations into received complaints.”
The trial is expected to take several weeks unless there is a settlement.