Maplewood Township, former Police Chief Robert Cimino and individual police officers have been served with a civil lawsuit by the family of a teen who was attacked in what they say was a racially motivated assault on the night of July 5, 2016.
The suit was filed by Cynthia McDougall, on behalf of her 17-year-old son Jason McDougall, a recent Columbia High School graduate who was 16 at the time of the incident. McDougall is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, according to his attorney, Robert L. Tarver Jr.
Aside from excessive force, the lawsuit alleges “serious issues of constitutional violations” against McDougall and other youth by police officers from Maplewood, South Orange and Irvington departments, who “restricted [the teens’] right to go home and to move freely” that night, the attorney said. Instead, officers can be heard and seen directing the teens into the adjacent town of Irvington.
“It was a nightmare of a night for policing” in Maplewood, said Tarver in a phone interview with Village Green.
The suit names Cimino (who reached an agreement with the township to retire by the end of the year), recently retired Capt. Joshua Cummis (who is suing the township), Det. Joseph Ciraulo and Officers Brian Rodrigues and Irvington Patrolman Michael Johnson — along with other “Jane/John Doe” officers from Maplewood, South Orange and Irvington. Ciraulo, Rodrigues and Johnson are accused of causing “direct physical harm” to McDougall, in the initial interaction where he was body slammed, pepper sprayed and subjected to racial taunts, Tarver said.
Not all of the officers have been identified, including some involved in the initial incident and an officer who can be seen on the video kicking McDougall in the head while other officers surrounded him. Others are included in the suit for what Tarver said was a dereliction of duty for failing to step in and stop the assaults.
“When you are a police officer, you have a duty to stop other [officers] from going hog wild crazy.”
The suit lays out the events of that night, which started with the fireworks breaking up and large crowds of teens leaving the area of Memorial Park. After breaking up an altercation on Valley and Parker Avenue, police began funneling teens east toward Irvington.
McDougall allegedly attempted to head to his home toward Boyden Avenue but officers stopped him. “When [McDougall} hesitated in getting onto the sidewalk, a police officer approached him visibly agitated and said ‘get your n***** ass on the sidewalk,'” the suit claims.
After McDougall stopped to talk to another teen, the filing alleges that a police officer “suddenly and without warning” ran toward and “struck him forcefully in the chest causing him to fall backward.” Then a group of officers allegedly kicked him repeatedly and sprayed “a chemical capsicum type spray directly into his eyes, nose, mouth and ears.”
Officers reportedly denied McDougall’s request for water to flush the pepper spray out. Police dashboard video of that night shows him yelling and rubbing his eyes with his T-shirt. According to the suit, he was trying to spit the spray out of his mouth when he was approached by Rodrigues, Johnson and other unnamed officers, one of whom yelled, “You just spit on a cop, you dirty ass n*****.”
After he was arrested, McDougall told an officer he couldn’t breathe; the officer then allegedly applied force to his neck causing the 16-year-old to lose consciousness.
The suit also claims that those officers and others yet identified conspired to create false reports on the events of that night. Further, the suit alleges Cimino and the township had knowledge of the “vicious propensities” of the police officers involved and did nothing to address them.
Tarver cited what he said was a pervasive and longstanding lack of supervision and oversight in the Maplewood Police Department that led to the assaults. “You don’t get here overnight.” He noted that the recent independent report the township commissioned confirmed the systemic problems in the department and concluded that “at every turn, police had the opportunity to de-escalate the situation but failed.”
McDougall is seeking both financial and punitive damages. “He wants to make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else,” said Tarver.
The attorney did commend Maplewood leaders for taking systemic steps toward reforming the police department, which he said was rare in a municipality.
“The Maplewood Police Department might be headed in the right direction, but they have to deal with the ghosts of the past.”
Meanwhile, the Maplewood Township Committee this week voted to introduce an ordinance that would “revise the procedure for promotions within the Maplewood Police Department,” giving the town more local control and making officers’ disciplinary records more important to the process.
After the Township was served on October 18, Mayor Vic DeLuca forwarded the suit to Village Green and wrote, “As this is a pending lawsuit, we will have no comment.”
The lawsuit is attached in two PDFs below: