Maplewood teen files suit against MPD

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Following the events of July 5, 2016, in which Maplewood police officers are accused of using excessive force and attempting to herd rowdy teenagers into neighboring Irvington, one Maplewood teenager is fighting back and has filed a federal lawsuit against the Maplewood Police Department.

Jason McDougall, 17, alleges that, during the July 5, 2016, incident, when McDougall was 16, police called him racial epithets, including the N-word, and threw him to the ground, where they kicked him, punched him and maced him.

Robert Tarver, McDougall’s attorney, held a press conference Aug. 16 on Springfield Avenue to announce the lawsuit and request that the U.S. Attorney and U.S. Department of Justice look into the matter.

“It is alleged that the police department of Maplewood acted outside of the scope of their duties and outside of any rational and reasonable behavior,” Tarver said at the press conference. “He was punched in the head no less than 13 times while on the ground and while being restrained by all these officers.”

DashCam video footage released last month shows several officers around a teenager, who has been identified as McDougall. In the video, McDougall is on the ground and it appears that officers are hitting him. According to Tarver, McDougall was attacked from behind.

Neither McDougall nor his mother spoke at the press conference.

In addition to allegations of excessive force, Tarver criticized the Maplewood Police Department’s attempt to corral the teenagers and send them into Irvington.

“The decision to herd him or move him out of Maplewood was a decision to send him to another town away from his home,” Tarver said at the press conference. “Maplewood police officers herded children — he was 16 years old at the time — in the dead of night away from their homes and into a separate town, a town where there was curfew that would have resulted in the arrest of those particular children.”

In audio files from that night, which were also released last month, Police Chief Robert Cimino, who is currently on paid administrative leave and has been asked by the Maplewood Township Committee to resign, can be heard telling his officers to get the teenagers over the border into Irvington.

Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca declined to comment, citing the township’s policy not to comment on pending litigation. Additionally, while DeLuca was unable to go into details regarding Cimino’s dismissal, DeLuca did say that the township is still pursuing it. As of press time, Cimino had yet to resign as requested.

While the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office decided after an eight-month investigation into the July 5, 2016, incident that there was not enough evidence to pursue action, the township has hired independent firm Hillard Heintze to investigate the matter.

“There are already changes being made that we think are positive,” Tarver told the News-Record in an Aug. 18 phone interview, before adding that there is still much to do. “There is a social justice element to this. We need changes in the Maplewood Police Department in how they approach policing, how they relate to the African American community and the community at large.”

But, according to Tarver, this case is also very personal.

“First and foremost, we’re looking for justice for Jason McDougall. This young man was beaten savagely on video, taken to the ground, punched in the head, kicked, maced. It was gratuitous violence that caused injuries — physical injuries and emotional injuries — and he deserves to be compensated,” Tarver told the News-Record. “He’s having issues being able to cope with what happened to him. He’s a big guy, but he was still a 16-year-old kid who had the crap beaten out of him. That changes in a number of ways the trajectory of your life.”

In the meantime, Tarver said he is looking for witnesses and other victims to come forward and speak to him.

At the press conference, Walter Fields, founder of the SOMA Black Parents Workshop, decried the police behavior exhibited July 5, 2016.

“He and others were treated like blacks were treated during Apartheid in South Africa,” Fields said at the press conference. “They were corralled and herded under the direct orders of police Chief Robert Cimino and pushed toward our neighboring community of Irvington simply because that is a black city and our youth are black.”

Columbia High School teacher Thomas Whitaker questioned why police felt the need to use force at all.

“Although the police have put out the tale that there was a fight that occurred, that hasn’t appeared on any video,” Whitaker said at the press conference. “Also, police have said that there were groups of children that rushed them; none of that is any of the multiple DashCams at all.”

Fields added that often police respond severely when black youth are involved.

“We have a problem whenever there is an assemblage of young black youth that automatically they are targeted and criminalized,” Fields said. “We are in a moral moment right now in America and there’s no gray area and there’s no hiding place.”

When asked if he was concerned regarding the Department of Justice’s response to his request for an investigation, Tarver said the DOJ has professional employees and that he does not doubt for a moment that they will do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

“I used to teach at the Office of Legal Education at the Department of Justice and I always found them to be professional, no matter the policy from the top,” Tarver said of his former colleagues in an interview with the News Record. “Many of them have been there for years and know how to do their jobs.”

According to Tarver, he is just looking to find justice for his client and to highlight flaws in the Maplewood Police Department that allowed this to happen.

“There is no way that any of the force was reasonable, warranted or necessary,” Tarver said at the press conference.

Photos Courtesy of Walter Fields