A federal civil trial against three Atlantic City officers enters its third week Monday with testimony expected to include two police chiefs, an officer previously found liable in an excessive force case and, possibly, the man who received a $3 million payout in a settlement involving that same officer.
Steven Stadler, 49, of Somers Point, alleges he was punched and kicked until he was unconscious after Officer Anthony Abrams, who was off-duty, found him burglarizing the lockbox of a car wash on March 13, 2013. K-9 Officer John Devlin, now retired, released his dog on the unconscious man, according to the claims.
But while the excessive force suit names Abrams, Devlin and Officer William Moore, it’s the Atlantic City Police Department’s policies that are most on trial. The suit claims the department’s environment let rogue officers who should have raised red flags for their use of force continue unabated.
“For this particular case, my obligation is to show that certain systems that should have been in place were not functioning properly,” said Jennifer Bonjean, who represents Stadler.
With that, she will put several officers not named in the suit on the stand based upon what she says are a significant number of Internal Affairs complaints.
That includes Officer Sterling Wheaten, who a federal civil jury ordered to pay a half-million dollars in a 2008 excessive force case. Last year, the city agreed to pay $3 million to settle another case involving Wheaten.
That case garnered national attention when a video of the 2013 arrest outside the Tropicana Casino and Resort was released.
The video showed officers fighting Connor Castellani, then 20, who had been kicked out of the casino earlier for being drunk and underage.
While Castellani is on the ground with five officers on him, Wheaten — then new to the K-9 unit — arrives and releases his dog.
The Linwood man required more than 200 stitches to close wounds to his head from the dog’s bites.
“It’s a shame,” Bonjean said of Wheaten. “He probably could have been a good cop. He seems pretty intelligent.”
But, she said, “from the minute he got on the department, he just started racking up (Internal Affairs complaints) like it was going out of style.”
He has previously invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, she said.
“I’ve never heard of a department where officers who plead the fifth keep their jobs,” Bonjean said. “At the end of the day, when you plead the fifth, it’s because you think you’re subject to prosecution for what you’ve done and you’re in fear of being prosecuted.”
Bonjean also expects to have Castellani testify Tuesday.
“They’ve objected,” she said of the defense. “I want to put (Castellani) on for a limited reason. We’ll see. The judge has us on a pretty tight leash.”
The defendants’ attorney, Tracy Riley, has questioned Bonjean’s tactics in the case. On Thursday, she unsuccessfully argued for a mistrial after what she said are years-old unproven complaints against Abrams were reported in the media.
“It’s my position that the plaintiff in this case is trying to create a distraction as opposed to dealing with the issue that we’re really there about,” she told BreakingAC. “There was clearly confidential information that had been released to the press in some fashion. I fought to obtain the source of that.”
While the judge denied that motion, Riley said she was looking into filing something that would find the source of the alleged leak.
“It’s called court documents,” Bonjean said, saying the information was publicly available through the courts electronic records system.
Retired Police Chief Ernest Jubilee and current Chief Henry White are expected to testify Wednesday.
White was sworn in as chief in December 2013, months after both Stadler’s and Castellani’s arrests.
At the time, he vowed reforms, acknowledging high-profile allegations at the time of excessive force and use of police dogs.
That year was marked by 217 Internal Affairs complaints, or about 7½ percent of the 2,882 arrests made. There were 42 excessive force complaints.
In comparison, there were 57 IA complaints last year, even though there were 340 more arrests than in 2013.
Bonjean said she believes White’s intentions were good, but not enough.
“I still think there are major failings in identifying problem officers, disciplining problem officers, removing problem officers,” she said.
Stadler immediately filed an IA complaint, which was closed without even talking to him, Bonjean said.
“I think this trial is much bigger than this Steven Stadler case,” she said.
But Riley said this case is the actions of Stadler, who admitted to smoking crack and pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary, telling the judge at the time that he resisted arrest.
“It is clear that Mr. Stadler pled guilty to resisting arrest pertaining to the incident on March 13, 2013,” Riley said, “and now he wants to be paid money for that plea.”