A Maplewood teen is bringing a federal lawsuit against the Maplewood Police Department, alleging that the “unnecessary and unwarranted use of force” used against him on the night of July 5, 2016 was racially motivated.
Jason McDougall, 17, who graduated from Columbia High School this summer, is seeking financial damages in excess of $1 million and punitive damages. Video from that night shows police punching the youth as he is handcuffed and lying on the ground with one officer kicking him in the head.
The lawsuit will name the township, suspended Maplewood Chief of Police Robert Cimino and individual police officers, who have not yet been identified, said McDougall’s attorney Robert L. Tarver Jr.
See a press release about the lawsuit from SOMA Black Parents Workshop below.
“This was a clear cut violation of federal civil law” and “clearly showed excessive force,” said Tarver in a phone interview with The Village Green shortly before a press conference announcing the suit. Tarver said his client was first slammed to the ground and pepper sprayed by one officer, and then punched repeatedly in the face and jaw and kicked in the head by other police officers as he lay in the street.
In addition to the video, audio from the evening contains commands by Cimino and Capt. Joshua Cummis directing that officers move a crowd of local teens east from Parker Avenue across the Irvington border. Three South Orange teenage boys and one Maplewood teenage boy were arrested on July 5, 2016 near the Irvington border.
On August 1, the Maplewood Township Committee called for Cimino’s immediate resignation, cast a vote of no confidence in his leadership and placed him on 60-day administrative leave. Cummis was also placed on leave. Six police officers, who have not been identified, were later disciplined for their actions. An investigation by the Professional Standards Bureau of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, completed this spring, found that there was “insufficient credible evidence” to warrant a criminal prosecution of Cimino and Cummis on charges of racial profiling. However, an investigation by a third party is ongoing.
The video released by the Maplewood Police — nearly one year after open public record requests were made by Village Green and community members — shows no resistance by McDougall during his arrest, said Tarver. Responding to the charge that McDougall spat on an Irvington police officer, which apparently led to the arrest, Tarver said McDougall, who had just been pepper sprayed in the face “for no reason,” was attempting to clear his eyes and mouth, and the spitting was not intentional.
“In my 30 years [of experience] I have never seen anything like it,” said Tarver, who called the incident “egregious”. “The evidence in this case speaks for itself.”
Village Green reached out for comment from Mayor Vic DeLuca, who said the township does not comment on pending litigation.
Tarver also alleges that the incident was racially motivated, claiming that McDougall was repeatedly called the “N” word and taunted by Maplewood Police.
One officer said to McDougall, “Get your n***** ass back on the sidewalk,” Tarver alleges.
Tarver said the incidents showed a “lack of guidance” and a “clear dereliction of duty” by Chief Cimino. Tarver objected to the directives by Cimino and Cummis in the audio tapes ordering officers to send the group of young people into Irvington, despite the fact that many of them lived in Maplewood or South Orange.
It was a “callous assumption” that the teens, many of whom were black, “can’t be part of Maplewood.”
Tarver questioned why the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office didn’t take action despite what he said was clear evidence of excessive force by police. He also said that McDougall’s family hired an attorney shortly after the incident to file charges against the officers, but the motion was rejected by an East Orange municipal judge who ruled that there was “no probable cause” to bring the charges.
Tarver said he commended the township for the hiring of the independent investigator, which shows that town leaders “recognize that there is something wrong here.”
However, the lawsuit is intended to send a message to the Maplewood Police and to Cimino. “This is a systemic problem with the MPD that allows individual officers to use excessive force” and racial epithets against black residents, the attorney said.
“The gravity of these acts cannot be understated,” said Tarver, who noted that his client had suffered emotional damage as well as physical. “All Jason McDougall wanted to do was go home.”
Photos courtesy Walter Fields.