NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - The city has agreed to a $172,000 settlement with former police officer Steve Middleton, years after he filed a lawsuit against the city alleging racial discrimination.
Middleton, an African American, served as a New Brunswick police officer for nearly two decades. He alleged that he was repeatedly overlooked for promotions, frequently subjected to racial slurs from his superiors and given harsher punishment and scrutiny than his white coworkers on the force.
The suit, filed in 2012, was initially filed against New Brunswick Police Director Anthony Caputo, New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill, former Police Director Peter Mangarella and the city itself.
In July 2017, Superior Court Judge Arthur Bergman dismissed the case against Cahill, Caputto and Mangarella, leaving the city as the sole defendant.
The settlement means that Middleton is forfeiting his right to a trial and jury, a proceeding in its second day when the settlement was reached Wednesday, November 29.
Superior Court Judge Vincent Leblon, presiding over the case, said he expected the trial to go on for two to three weeks, and suggested that Cahill and Caputo might have also been called up to testify.
Attorneys from Dwyer, Connell & Lisbona, which represented the city, motioned for a mistrial after only one hour of testimony from Middleton.
They argued that that jury was tainted by testimony Middleton provided on a separate case, filed by longtime officers Arthur Anderson, Maurice Finney and Tony Ingram, who alleged they were being punished for not supporting a so-called “political machine” led by Cahill.
That punishment came in the form of the three being passed over for promotions and frequently given undesirable assignments, such as crossing guard duty.
Attorneys for both sides agreed that no matter the outcome, the other side would appeal and declare a mistrial, meaning an entirely new jury would have to be selected. Rather than a potentially costly trial which dragged on indefinitely, both sides opted for a settlement.
The November 29 settlement came reluctantly from the city, whose officials have expressed a desire to fully go to trial instead, according to one of the city’s lawyers, William T. Connell.
“I want to indicate for the record that Mayor Cahill did not approve this settlement, did not favor this settlement,” Connell said. “He has approved it, he was not in favor of it, he wanted a jury to decide this case.”
Connell added that New Brunswick Police Director Anthony Caputo was also displeased by the settlement
The money is coming from the Middlesex County Joint Insurance Fund. Contrary to the name, the JIF only has three member towns from Middlesex County and includes municipalities from all across the state.
During Middleton’s testimony on November 28, and as well as in the lawsuit, Middleton described racial bias to which he was allegedly subjected since joining the force in 1994.
For instance, he was given the nickname “8-ball,” while another officer was given the nickname “fudge,” Middleton claimed.
On many occasions, Middleton said, Mangarella frequently made “inappropriate, unprofessional remarks,” that showed a “disregard for minorities.”
During the testimony, Middleton compared Mangarella to Archie Bunker, a television character who was known for frequently making racial remarks and jokes.
In one instance, Mangarella used racial slurs about an unarmed African American man he shot in the back, according to Middleton.
During a barbeque at National Night Out several years ago, according to Middleton, then-Lt. Mangarella made a joke about how minority children who lived in the Schwartz Homes and Robeson Village public housing were prone to petty theft, advising everyone to check their pockets for anything missing.
During the testimony, one of Middleton’s attorneys, Donald Burke, Jr., detailed a car chase in which Middleton was involved and received a significantly stricter punishment than his white superiors.
Middleton, who was in the passenger seat of the car, was punished with an eight-day suspension from duty, according to Burke.
Sgt. John Langan, a white police officer driving the car, received a four-day suspension, while two other officers only received verbal warnings. The punishment for Middleton was unprecedented, Burke said, who suggested that it was retaliation for filing the lawsuit.
Yet Connell painted a picture of Middleton being desperate to prove himself to his superiors and other officers, recklessly endangering the public as a result.
The county prosecutor and Attorney General’s office have guidelines for police pursuits, which individual departments have to adopt, Connell said.
“They thought they were the most experienced,” Connell said, referring to Middleton and Langan. Throughout the chase, Connell said, the police cruiser made contact with the fleeing vehicle and went parallel to it, both of which are major violations.
The stolen vehicle eventually crashed into the curb, no one was hurt, and the suspect was apprehended, Connell said.
Middleton’s lawsuit also details numerous instances in which he was passed over for promotions, with the lawsuit and Burke’s opening statement depicting New Brunswick police officials bending over backwards to find reasons not to promote Middleton.
During one instance, a lieutenant, two captains and two sergeants all retired at the same time, the lawsuit said. But Middleton still wasn’t promoted, despite being number one on a list of potential contenders.
The lawsuit also contends that police officials deliberately stalled promoting Middleton to lieutenant until February 2011, so that he wouldn’t be eligible to sit for a captain’s test.
The test was announced late August 2010, and requires an applicant to serve at least one year as lieutenant before being eligible to sit for the test.
“New Brunswick Police Department had an obvious need for Police Lieutenants as evident by incurring overtime to existing Lieutenants and changing Lieutenants' schedules to ensure adequate operational coverage,” reads the lawsuit.
But Connell disputed this as being a deliberate effort, saying that in 2010 and 2011, the department was still hounded by the economic woes of the 2008 recession, as well as demands from Gov. Chris Christie for the public sector to tighten its belt.
Mangarella had every intention to eventually promote Middleton, whom he was very fond of, Connell said, but the money simply wasn’t there in 2010.
“Mangarella says ‘we’re bleeding overtime',” Connell said. “Middleton’s the number one on the list, the mayor says ‘you've gotta show me the dollars and cents that we’re going to save by promoting Steve to lieutenant, instead of incurring us overtime'.’’
Middleton did in fact incur $3,000 in overtime, Connell said, and was promoted to sergeant and lieutenant over the course of his career, suggesting he wasn’t passed over for career advancement.