Passaic Police Brutality Case Settled

10 08 2008

Man alleges city police officers beat him in 2006

PASSAIC — The City Council has approved settling a lawsuit involving a city resident who claims three Passaic police officers brutally beat him.

The terms of the settlement with Manuel Escalante, approved unanimously at Tuesday night’s council meeting, were not disclosed.

Escalante filed a civil-rights action against the city in U.S. District Court alleging city police officers violated his constitutional rights and that the Police Department improperly investigated citizen complaints of police misconduct and inadequately trained and supervised its officers.

Thomas Walters, of the law firm Bolan Jahnsen & Reardon, who represented the city, said the settlement does not mean that the officers are guilty.

“There is no admission of liability on the part of any defendants,” he said.

City Business Administrator Greg Hill said he could not comment on the specifics of Escalante’s case since the settlement was confidential.

Escalante alleged that two years ago he was inside a bar when three Passaic police officers — Enrique Torres, Joseph Crisostomo and James Lane — entered, supposedly looking for someone with a handgun. The officers then arrested him for aggravated assault and resisting arrest. Escalante said that one of them beat his head with a flashlight as he tried to defend himself. Escalante said he had open head wounds but the officers did not allow him to stay overnight in the hospital for observation.

Escalante also alleged that the police officers tried to cover up their excessive use of force by conspiring to falsify documents, procure false statements and plant evidence against him.

“Upon information and belief, the Passaic Police Department has a custom of tolerating a ‘code of silence’ among its police officers, which enables officers to engage in wide ranging official misconduct, including using excessive force upon innocent civilians, without any substantial risk of being reported by their fellow police officers,” Escalante’s 2006 complaint stated.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, the 33-year-old truck driver said he received 27 stitches in his forehead from injuries he suffered during the incident. Escalante said that when the undercover officers approached him in the bar, they did not identify themselves as police officers. He said that after his arrest, officers searched him three times and did not find a gun. Escalante said that officers later planted in his cell a cigarette lighter that resembled a gun. They had no evidence that he had the cigarette lighter, he said, because they could not find fingerprints on it.

“I really felt framed,” he said.

In 2008, a state court jury convicted Escalante of resisting arrest, a third-degree indictable offense, he said. He said he served 8 1/2 months at the Passaic County Jail and is in the process of appealing the sentence.

The suit is the second civil-rights action filed against the Police Department over the past five years.

In 2005, a federal judge ruled the city had to pay $1.4 million to the family of a diabetic Hispanic man. A lawsuit alleged Passaic Police Officer Robert Callahan used excessive force against the man as he was having a seizure. The man died after being taken to the hospital.

A copy of the department’s annual internal affairs report was not immediately available. It would show the number of cases investigated, including the number of cases in which an officer was found to have acted improperly and the number of those cases that were dismissed.

Hill, the city’s business administrator, said that cities typically face a higher number of lawsuits than suburban municipalities.

“You always have a lot more slip-and-fall cases,” he said.

The city has insurance for lawsuits against it, and whether the city fights a lawsuit is a decision the insurance company makes, he said.

“The strategy is really the insurance company’s strategy, even if the city has to approve it,” he said. In most cases, Hill said, the insurance companies are looking to settle to avoid the expensive costs of trial. Hill said the city is responsible for a $25,000 deductible and then the insurance company pays the rest.

Detective Andrew White, a spokesman for the Police Department, said he could not comment on the settlement with Escalante. White said two of the officers involved, Lane and Crisostomo, are still members of the police force. White said Torres left the department, but would not say if he left on his own or was terminated.

“Any complaints on a police officer are thoroughly investigated,” he said.

White said the department requires all officers to take a sensitivity training course to learn about the “different cultures in the city.”

Reach Meredith Mandell at 973-569-7107 or mandell@northjersey.com.

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