On June 2, 2022, Cumberland County, New Jersey agreed to pay $300,000 to an inmate who said that he was beaten by jail guards despite being compliant with their attempt to handcuff him. Criminal charges that were brought against one correction officer involved in the alleged beating were resolved by the officer pleading guilty to a lesser charge. Disciplinary charges against the officer resulted in him accepting 960 hours of unpaid suspension.
In his lawsuit, Raheem Jacobs claimed that on February 25, 2015, he was an inmate at the Cumberland County Jail and was involved in an encounter with Correction Officers Michael Williams, Neal J. Armstrong (incorrectly spelled “Neil Armstrong” in the lawsuit), Michael R. Anderson, Emanuel Marrero (incorrectly spelled “Emanual Morrero” in the lawsuit) and Manuel Velazquez (incorrectly spelled “Manual Velesquez” in the lawsuit). According to an October 10, 2019 Third Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, Jacobs, who had been in a fight with another inmate, was told to finish his shower and get dressed so that the five officers could take him to the jail’s medical unit for an evaluation. Jacobs claimed that after showering, he was shuffling through papers on his bunk when the officers grabbed him because he was “taking too long.” Armstrong, however, said that when he asked Jacobs whether he was looking for a weapon (while shuffling through his belongings), Jacobs said “maybe” and Williams claimed that Jacobs said “something to the effect of F*** you guys, . . . you guys are crazy” when Williams asked him what he had in his hand.
According to the court’s opinion, “after being grabbed by Armstrong, Jacobs did not resist as Armstrong tried to handcuff him. As Jacobs stood compliant with his hands behind his back, Williams approached and stood face to face with Jacobs. Within seconds, Williams delivered a strike to Jacobs’s neck and a punch to the side of his head. After the first two blows, Armstrong put Jacobs into a neck hold and forced him to the floor as Williams delivered a backhand slap to Jacobs’ face. The security video failed to fully capture the next two portions of the incident. First, as Armstrong and Jacobs tumbled to the floor, they fell out of the security camera’s view. The video shows Officer Anderson dropping to the floor to assist Armstrong, but it does not capture Armstrong’s and Anderson’s actions during the twenty-second period that Jacobs remained on the floor. According to Jacobs, the officers pinned him to the floor and punched and kneed him as they cuffed his hands behind his back. Second, as Officers Morrero and Armstrong escorted Jacobs to the medical unit, they used an elevator with no security camera. Jacobs alleges that as his hands were still cuffed behind his back the officers threw him face-first into the elevator wall and continued beating him.”
NJ.com obtained the video of the incident and posted it on YouTube here.
More than two years later, on August 17, 2017, an aggravated assault charge was brough against Williams. The statute that Williams was charged with violating is N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1B(7) which states that “a person is guilty of aggravated assault if the person attempts to cause significant bodily injury to another or causes significant bodily injury purposely or knowingly or, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life recklessly causes such significant bodily injury.”
On September 14, 2017, Superior Court Judge Cristen P. D’Arrigo signed off on a plea deal under which Williams pled guilty to simple assault, a disorderly persons offense, and, according to the Judgment of Conviction, was “sentenced to fines and penalties only; no jail time ordered; $36 court costs; pay $50 to [Violent Crimes Compensation Assessment]; $75 [Safe Neighborhoods Services Assessment]; report to finance today; forfeiture waiver filed.” Accordingly, it appears that the court allowed Williams to keep his job and imposed $161 in costs and assessments. A single PDF file which contains the aggravated assault charge, probable cause affidavit, incident report and judgment of conviction is on-line here.
(Note: It is my understanding that under N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2, a public employee, such as Williams, is required to forfeit his public employment whenever he or she is “convicted of an offense involving or touching [his or her] office, position or employment.” There is an exception, however, at N.J.S.A. 2C:51-2(e) that allows a court to waive forfeiture based upon a conviction of a disorderly persons offense only if the county prosecutor applies for the waiver. I have submitted an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to the Cumberland County prosecutor for any waiver application it filed on Williams’ behalf together with any supporting certifications or briefs. I will update this article to include the prosecutor’s response when I receive it.) Update 07/22/2022: The Prosecutor’s September 11, 2017 Application for a Waiver of Forfeiture along with the supporting affidavit and Judge Michael J. Silvanio’s forfeiture waiver order are on-line here.
On October 23, 2017, Williams entered into an agreement which resolved disciplinary charges that Cumberland County brought against him arising out of a February 25, 2015 interaction with an inmate. (The inmate’s name is redacted from the agreement, but it is almost certainly Jacobs given the date of the interaction.) The agreement called for Williams to “accept and agree to 180 calendar days suspension . . . based on an 8 hour workday.” According to the agreement, “the working days within the suspension period equal 960 hours against which the employee shall be credited with 39 days (468 hours) of time served. Accordingly the employee has 492 hours of suspension time remaining to be served as of September 11, 2017.”
In order to verify that Williams served the entire 980 hours of unpaid suspension, I submitted an OPRA request for his payroll sheets. The county’s April 27, 2022 response showed that Williams, in mid-2022, still apparently served only the 468 hours that was considered “time served” on October 23, 2017 and had yet to make any progress toward serving the remaining 492 hours required by his agreement. I sent a May 6, 2022 email to Cumberland County Commissioner Joseph Sileo asking him to look into the matter. In response, I received a May 12, 2022 email from Cumberland County Counsel John G. Carr informing me that he had forwarded my email to the HR Director, Jail Warden and Jail Compliance Officer “for review and appropriate action and/or feedback.” I have received nothing further from the County on the matter.
According to Cumberland County’s May 9, 2022 response to my OPRA request, Williams had then been employed for a little more than 19 years, worked as a “County Correctional Police Officer” at an annual base salary of $74,000.
According to Cumberland County’s July 20, 2022 response to my OPRA request, Armstrong’s “employee status” is listed as “Suspended – No Pay” with a “status date” of September 11, 2018 and Velazquez’ “employee status” is listed as “Retire” with a “status date” of March 31, 2016. Williams’, Anderson’s and Marrero’s “employee statuses” are all listed as “active.” It does not appear from the response and the ALJ’s decision, linked below, that Armstrong’s “Suspended – No Pay” status arose out of his interaction with Jacobs. It is also not clear whether Armstrong is still suspended or merely had a suspended status as of September 11, 2018. I have submitted another OPRA request to find out and will update this article upon my receipt of the County’s response. Update 07/28/2022: Curiously, Armstrong’s time card shows that he starting accumulating “unpaid” hours on May 20, 2018 and has nothing, apart from absences, but “unpaid hours” through to the date of my OPRA request.
In the same July 20, 2022 OPRA response, the County disclosed that on October 25, 2016 Anderson agreed to accept a seven-day suspension after he appealed the ten-day suspension that the County imposed on September 16, 2015. The County also disclosed that it had imposed a ten-day suspension upon Armstrong but that an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) vacated the suspension by way of an August 25, 2017 Initial Decision. Finally, the County disclosed a November 6, 2015 Settlement Agreement under which Velazquez agreed to accept a five-suspension after having appealed the County’s imposition of a twenty-day suspension.
The court case is captioned Raheem Jacobs v. Cumberland County, et al, Federal Case No. 1:16-cv-01523 and Jacobs’ attorney was William J. Fox of Philadelphia. Case documents are on-line here.
None of Jacobs’ allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Rather, they are just that–allegations. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Williams or any of the other jail or police officials named in the lawsuit. All that is known for sure is that Cumberland County or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Jacobs $300,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.