Two police brutality lawsuits were settled for a total of $245,000, according to agreements recently unearthed by open public records advocate John Paff.
Mr. Paff is a Somerset resident who runs the state Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. He has also pressed the High Bridge and Franklin Township school boards for more openness. Mr. Paff said he came across the Readington documents during a routine investigation into civil cases involving a government agency, which he posts on his blog: njcivilsettlements.blogspot.com. Mr. Paff said he thought people might be interested in the payouts because that's information municipalities don't like to advertise.
According to one of the agreements, Readington's insurer paid $200,000 to township residents Christopher Strobel and Valerie Luckstone in January 2008. Mr. Strobel had sued the township and several of its police officers four years earlier, alleging "intentional beating, verbal abuse and threats" during a March 2002 incident.
A second police abuse suit was settled by paying $45,000 to resident Thomas Wachendorf in January 2007. He said township police exercised "unlawful use of force" in arresting him in May 2004. Although the agreement contained a confidentiality clause, it's still subject to the state's Open Public Records Act, a law that ensures a citizen's access to government records.
"I do not think you can draw a straight-line comparison between the merits of the case and the dollar amount," Mayor Julia Allen said of the settlements. She added that such claims are handled in a routine fashion by the township's insurance company. "In the majority of cases, the settlement has nothing to do with the merits of the case -- it's strictly a financial decision made by the insurance company."
The township paid a $5,000 deductible for the Strobel settlement, and there was no deductible for the Wachendorf settlement, according to Township Administrator Vita Mekovetz.
Readington is part of a joint insurance fund, and the settlements didn't seem to have a significant effect on the township's rates, she said.
Police Chief James Paganessi declined comment on the settlements but previously called the suits "baseless."
Christopher Strobel's lawsuit stemmed from an incident when Mr. Strobel was stopped by then-Patrolman Joseph Greco (since made sergeant) while he was walking home on the shoulder of Route 22. According to his complaint, he began telling the officer "about the recent death of his infant daughter" when Cpl. Scott Crater (now lieutenant) and Sgt. Sebastian Donaruma (now lieutenant) arrived. The suit says Mr. Strobel turned to leave because Sgt. Greco had returned his driver's license, and then-Cpl. Crater grabbed him and "threw him face first into one of the police cars."
Mr. Strobel claimed that then-Cpl. Crater, with the help of the two other police officers, again "slammed (his face) into the rear window of the patrol car with sufficient force to shatter it and send Strobel's shoulder through the broken window."
After that, he alleged, the men punched him several times and he fell to the ground. He said he told then-Sgt. Donaruma that the officer was hurting his arm and in return "was kicked in the head and his face was ground into the pavement by the officer's boot." Mr. Strobel claimed that later then-Patrolman Greco told him: "You have no rights here; this is our town and don't you forget it."
The suit contends that Sgt. John Insabella later went to Mr. Strobel's home and coerced his wife, Valerie Luckstone, into signing a false domestic violence complaint against her husband. According to the court papers, she was told to sign "if she wanted her husband released from jail." The couple said they continued to be harassed by township police after the incident.
Charges of obstruction of justice and resisting arrest against Mr. Strobel were dismissed by Lambertville Municipal Court Judge Richard Cushing because the police affidavit failed to show probable cause.
In the other suit settled by Readington, Mr. Wachendorf accused then-Cpl. Crater and then-Cpl. Christopher DeWire (now sergeant) of assaulting him after a traffic stop in his Holland Brook Road driveway. He said they followed him into his driveway and exited their patrol cars "with their handguns partially drawn." Mr. Wachendorf alleges that they ordered him out of his car and, seconds later, pulled him out then "threw him onto the gravel driveway at the edge of the brick patio, and slapped a handcuff onto (his) left wrist." He said his wrist was broken and the fall made him strike his head, breaking his glasses and causing him to lose consciousness.
According to the police department, officers tried to stop Mr. Wachendorf because he was driving an unregistered vehicle, and followed him for 2 miles before he turned into his driveway. In this case, a police video of the stop showed Mr. Wachendorf and the officers tussling. He was charged with resisting arrest, obstruction of justice and eluding police. Mr. Wachendorf entered and completed a pre-trial intervention program, and charges against him were later dropped.
Meanwhile, the incident cost him his teaching job at Mountainview state prison. A tenured teacher who helped inmates prepare for General Educational Development (GED) tests, he was fired for "conduct unbecoming a public employee." Mr. Wachendorf's appeal made it to the Superior Court Appellate Division, where the judges agreed with the administrative law judge's decision that evidence against him, including the police video, supported the charges. That judge also found Mr. Wachendorf's testimony to be inconsistent and not believable.
In both settlements, the agreements state that payments aren't an admission of wrongdoing. But Mr. Paff thinks this kind of information is valuable because it enables local governing bodies to look for patterns in lawsuits.
A third lawsuit alleging township police abuse was dismissed in December 2006.