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MILLVILLE -- Sheila Stevenson and then-Millville police officer Carlo Drogo crossed paths on a cold early morning in February 2008.
It was still dark, around 6 a.m., and Stevenson was riding her bicycle on the sidewalk of North 2nd Street when Drogo, in his patrol car, pulled alongside her.
What happened next is now the subject of a lawsuit in Superior Court in which Stevenson alleges Drogo beat her while she was in custody. The officer denies the charges.
VIEW VIDEO BELOW
Drogo resigned from the police force last fall and Stevenson has since been found guilty of resisting arrest.
The city of Millville released two videos recorded on cameras in police cruisers at the scene.
Here's how the arrest unfolded:
Drogo got out of his car and walked toward Stevenson as she rode into the street in front of his cruiser.
The former officer said in a statement Wednesday he stopped Stevenson because she was riding her bicycle on the sidewalk a violation of city ordinances.
A camera mounted on the dashboard of Drogo's patrol car captured what happened next.
Drogo defends his actions as appropriate.
Many of the people with knowledge of the arrest -- including Millville's chief of police, the Cumberland County prosecutor and the lawyer representing Stevenson -- declined to comment on the video.
But a law professor who reviewed the footage earlier this week at the request of Gannett New Jersey says the incident is a clear example of excessive force by police.
Stevenson, 42, filed suit in state Superior Court last month, naming Drogo, the city and other officers as defendants.
Gannett New Jerseyl obtained the video from the city by requesting it through the state's Open Public Records Act. The city denied the newspaper's request for the video twice before releasing it last week.
In the video, Drogo exits his car and approaches Stevenson from behind. When she appears to resist the officer, he grabs her by the arm to subdue her. When that doesn't work, Drogo grabs the pepper spray on his utility belt. Still standing behind Stevenson, Drogo's tries to spray her, but instead accidentally sprays himself in the face.
The officer, appearing stunned, then grabs Stevenson off the bicycle and drags her to the ground.
Moments later, two backup officers arrive and struggle to handcuff Stevenson as she is facedown on the ground. Drogo is seen in the video doubled over from the pepper spray, with his arm over his eyes.
"I'm not doing nothing!" Stevenson repeatedly yells as the officers try to handcuff her.
Drogo then walks over and, as the other two officers struggle with Stevenson, appears to punch the woman four times in the head with a closed fist.
"Why are you hitting me?" Stevenson screams.
As the two backup officers continue to struggle with Stevenson, Drogo appears to throw another punch at Stevenson and kick her before putting his foot on or near her neck.
After a few more moments of struggle, the officers handcuff Stevenson and sit her on the curb.
Drogo, who is standing nearby, walks past and slaps Stevenson on the side of the head.
"Why did you hit me when I'm handcuffed? Did anybody see it?" Stevenson yells.
After being searched by a female officer, Stevenson is led to a patrol car while other officers flush Drogo's eyes with bottles of water.
Drogo came to the Millville Police Department in 2004 from the Buena Police Department, where he had worked since 2001. Drogo resigned from the Millville force for undisclosed reasons in October.
He viewed the video with Gannett New Jersey reporter Wednesday and, in a later e-mailed statement, defended his actions. The full statement can be read at the bottom of this article.
"I stand by everything that I did that night and only ask for the same due process afforded earlier to the plaintiff," Drogo, 27, said in the statement, referring to Stevenson. "Please know that I am the person who activated the dash cam that night. I turned it on as an objective witness because I was acting in good faith to enforce the laws of the state."
A tape from a backup officer's dashboard camera captured audio of the incident, but does not show most of the arrest.
Millville police Chief Ed Grennon this week declined to discuss the videos, or say why Drogo left the force.
"It's in litigation, therefore I can't make any kind of comments on it," he said.
Cumberland County Prosecutor Ronald J. Casella on Tuesday declined to say whether his office investigated the incident involving Drogo and Stevenson.
"If there were an investigation, it was done by" the Millville Police Department, "and if they asked us to review it" for possible criminal charges, "it would be confidential," Casella said previously.
No criminal charges have been filed against Drogo or the other officers involved.
Stevenson's attorney, Harold Shapiro of Vineland, declined to comment on the video and said he would not make his client available for an interview.
Stevenson's lawsuit, which alleges she was a victim of excessive force, is pending in state Superior Court. In her lawsuit, Stevenson seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Grennon said his department follows the guidelines for use of force set by the state Attorney General's Office.
Those guidelines recommend that in using force, "the law-enforcement officer shall be guided by the principle that the degree of force employed in any situation should be only that reasonably necessary," and law enforcement officers "should exhaust all other reasonable means before resorting to the use of force."
This wasn't the case in the incident involving Drogo and Stevenson, said Donald F. Tibbs, an associate professor of law at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who has studied the use of police force.
At Gannett New Jersey's request, he viewed the video from Drogo's dashboard camera this week.
"This is clearly excessive force," Tibbs said. "This is way beyond excessive force. This is actually a violation of her civil rights.
"He's upset because he sprayed himself with pepper spray, and this is him acting out his frustration," Tibbs said of Drogo. "I would like to think this doesn't happen to you just because you're riding your bike on the sidewalk."
Although Stevenson resisted the officers' attempts to arrest her, Drogo's actions went well beyond what was necessary to subdue her, Tibbs said.
"There should be no more force used than is necessary to make the suspect submit," Tibbs said. "That is more force than is necessary to subdue her -- the other officers already have her on the ground and are using a reasonable amount of force."
The blows delivered by Drogo in the video "have absolutely nothing to do with restraining a suspect who is already on the ground," Tibbs said. "I think most people would probably agree with that."
In connection with the incident, Stevenson was charged with possession of cocaine, resisting arrest, providing false information to a law enforcement officer, obstruction of justice and failure to turn over a controlled dangerous substance to police.
Stevenson was found guilty in Municipal Court last June of resisting arrest. She was fined $756 plus court costs, according to court records. On the drug possession charge, she was given a conditional discharge, meaning the count would be dismissed if she stayed out of trouble.
However, Stevenson allegedly tested positive for cocaine use late last year and a warrant was issued Oct. 1 for her arrest for violating the conditions of the discharge, Municipal Court Administrator Jean DuBois-Chard said previously.
It was unclear Wednesday whether the warrant was still active.
Tibbs, the Drexel professor, said although police often have to use varying levels of force in the line of duty, it was difficult to defend Drogo's actions in this case.
"His reaction is a violent one, and not one that is in response to performance of his duties. Police officers are not allowed to punch citizens just because they're angry, under any circumstances."
Drogo, in his statement, said, "I invite anyone to view the dash cam video while reading a copy" of Stevenson's lawsuit. "You will clearly see the frivolousness of her suit, and the outright false statements contained in her complaint."
That decision now will go to the courts. No trial date has been set.
FULL STATEMENT FROM OFFICER DRAGO
Ex-Millville cop issues statement about lawsuit
The following statement was provided Wednesday by former Millville police officer Carlo Drogo:
The allegations made in the plaintiff's civil complaint are an outright distortion of the facts and I assert that the stop was based on probable cause and that her arrest was lawful. The plaintiff was provided with due process in a court of law for any and all charges that she faced as a result of her actions on that night. She was charged with a city ordinance violation for riding a bicycle on a sidewalk in the arts district, a traffic summons for failure to keep right on a bicycle, and a list of criminal charges rangingfrom hindering apprehension by providing a false name, obstruction of justice, resisting arrest, and possession of a controlled dangerous substance (crack cocaine), and was lodged into the county jail on those charges along with other active warrants that she had at that time.
With the advice of counsel, she plead guilty to resisting arrest and drug charges and was sentenced accordingly, so certainly the initial stop of her was deemed lawful andappropriate by my supervisors, the prosecutors, the judge, and even her own defense attorney. Please remember, no allegation of false arrest was brought up during any of the numerous court hearings the plaintiff had.
I invite anyone to view the dash cam video while reading a copy of her complaint. You will clearly see the frivolousness of her suit and the outright false statements contained in her complaint. During the incident, I was accidentally exposed to police pepper spray and therefore was unable to see clearly.I was so affected that I could not even drive and had to be driven back to the police station. Every day that I worked the streets during my career, I learned that no stop was routine, and that the unexpected was to be expected. I stand by everything that I did that night and only ask for the same due process afforded earlier to the plaintiff.
Please know that I am the person who activated the dash cam that night. I turned it on as an objective witness because I was acting in good faith to enforce the laws of the state. By the way, the ordinance prohibiting the plaintiff from riding her bicycle on the sidewalk was adopted long ago by the City Commission in Millville. I'm sure it was their intent to improve the quality of life of the residents in Millville.
Just ask yourself: What was someone doing riding their bicycle in the middle of the night in a high drug area, just a short distance from where drug and gang related shootings have been happening? Well, that was the question I was trying to answer. And apparently my suspicions were correct, the plaintiff was under the influence and had crack cocaine in her possession, along with the fact that she had other outstanding warrants and decided to resist arrest.
Another thought is thatSheila Stevensonmust think she is untouchable because she has been in and out of Superior Court for this lawsuit numerous times and yet,she has had an active warrant for the past several months. I guess the police are scared to arrest her in fear of getting sued next... Is that the kind of world you want to live in?
This fucking infuriates me to the fullest.. Fucking pussy as pigs hitting a women only because he was so stupid as to pepper spray himself. They should allow her to beat this fucker with a bat and piss on his face
Fuck this shit. This is the same kind of shit I got pulled over for a couple months back, basically for being out on a bicycle at night. It's bs. Not only is the beating BS, but the entire reason he stopped her.
Someone being "suspicious" is the worst reason I can thing of for stopping a person. There really is no classified guidelines for what makes a person suspicious, and it's all up to discretion of weather or not the cop wants to harass someone. If there are guidelines, riding a bike at night should not be one. Sure she was violating some stupid city ordinance about not riding on sidewalks, but before beating her the officer doesn't even tell her why she was being accosted. The same happened to me, I was pulled over and being patted down before I could even drag my reason for being stopped out of the officer's mouth. Fuck bored ass small town cops.