City of Millville Police Bureau & Court Administration Credit: J. Stephen Conn / CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed, No changes made.

On August 1, 2023, the City of Millville (Cumberland County, NJ) agreed to pay $60,000 to a local man who claimed that a police officer punched him several times in the head and face when he was “not satisfied with [the man’s] degree of compliance.”

In a June 28, 2021 opinion, United States District Judge Noel L. Hillman summarized plaintiff Barry Cottman’s allegations as follows: Cottman, who is African-American, claimed that on June 27, 2017, he was legally crossing a street when Millville police officers Joseph Dixon and Robert Runkle confronted him with false accusations of inappropriate conduct. Cottman alleged that the two officers “forcefully took him to the ground… without reasonable provocation or justification.” Once on the ground, Dixon, who was approximately six feet three inches tall and weighed 250 pounds, was said to have restrained him by straddling him and pinning him to the sidewalk. Dixon, according to Cottman, struck him with a series of closed-fist punches to the head and face while Runkle stood by and observed.

A video of the encounter was captured by a bystander. The video is embedded within a June 28, 2017, NJ Advance Media article, which removed the audio “due to explicit language throughout.”

Cottman alleged that Dixon and Runkle each wrote false reports about the incident and that he was acquitted in municipal court of the charges brought against him.

According to Millville’s Open Public Records Act response, Runkle is now a sergeant, earning $108,532 per year after sixteen years of service. Dixon, however, resigned from the force in 2019 and was, according to a January 17, 2020 Daily Journal article, sentenced to two years of probation to resolve two counts of third-degree aggravated assault for allegedly injuring one woman and breaking the ribs of another in separate incidents in February and March 2018.

The case is captioned Barry Cottman v. Jody Farabella, et al., Federal Case No. 1:19-cv-14122, and Carpenter’s attorney was Justin T. Loughry of Camden. The civil complaint, two court opinions, and the settlement agreement are available in a tabbed PDF file online here.

None of the lawsuit’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants. All that is known for sure is that Millville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Cottman $60,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision was made to save further legal expenses 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 resolve before trial—it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]