HIGHLAND PARK, NJ - Local activists are pushing for an independent investigation into the death of an Edison resident who died following a scuffle with Highland Park police in June 2016.
Daniel Nagahama, 28 of Edison, died in Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick hours after the incident.
Police accounts of the incident have recently come under scrutiny by activists and local residents.
The prosecutor’s office indicated in a June 2016 statement that Nagahama hadn’t been arrested, only for that to be seemingly contradicted by use of force reports made public in early December, indicating that an arrest was made.
“I think that the prosecutor’s statements, initially about what happened, from I’ve seen in the video, from what I’ve read about police reports, that it was misleading to the public, and that’s really troubling,” said Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, a local Highland Park resident.
During rush hour on the evening of Friday, December 22, Weill-Greenberg was one of about a dozen residents who protested and held signs along the busy intersection of Raritan Avenue and South Adelaide Street in Highland Park.
For many of those who attended, their interest has also been renewed in Nagahama’s death largely due to the release of dashcam footage from different police cars of the incident.
“I do think you could have an independent investigation that would at least take a look at how he was treated, and take a look at the whole process, all the way through into the hospital,” said another protester, Highland Park resident Ellen Whitt.
Dashcam footage shows Nagahama struggling with police officers and screaming at them during a 13 minute interaction.
Nagahama is pinned to the police car, handcuffed, strapped to a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance, according to footage.
County prosecutor Andrew Carey said that Nagahama wasn’t arrested; instead he was placed in handcuffs for his own protection and that of the officers, with the arrest reports being written only in anticipation of a potential disorderly persons offense.
For Whitt though, there seems to have been a missing piece between Nagahama’s struggle with police and his death several hours later.
“I was quite struck by the original story from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, that he was being revived when he became belligerent, and as a result there was an altercation. But that wasn't actually true, you could see the video, that was not the case at all,” Whitt said.
Nagahama’s death had been ruled as stemming from “natural causes,” according to the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, that is, “morbid obesity with cardiomegaly and left ventricle hypertrophy.”
An autopsy report from the Middlesex County medical examiner indicated Nagahama also three times the legal limit of alcohol in his system.
Authorities initially didn’t release the UFRs filed by the four Highland Park police officers involved in the incident.
The Libertarians for Transparent Government ended up filing a lawsuit against the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office to make the reports public.
Weill-Greenberg said she would hopes for some kind of independent investigation, be it from an outside prosecutor or the state attorney general’s office.
“You need someone outside of a small town or a city or local politics, to come in and help figure out what happened and help figure out how make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Weill-Greenberg said.
The four officers had been cleared of wrongdoing after the case was referred to the county prosecutor’s office.
Nagahama’s death and the preceding police struggle were reported to the state attorney general’s office in accordance with use-of-force guidelines, according to the county prosecutor.
“The investigation’s run its’ course,” said Highland Park Chief of Police Stephen Rizco. “Our process is to call the prosecutor’s office, they report to the attorney general’s office. That’s the way it’s set up in New Jersey.”
"I understand how people's feelings, given the overall state of policing in the United states, the things that've happened in other locations would create a heightened sense of 'oh, did this happen here too'," added Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, "But I would be shocked if that had happened with our police because of all the training they go through."
Norman Travis, a Highland Park resident who’s work in the mental health field for several decades, said there were many things the officers during the incident could have done differently.
He’s spent decades working in the mental health field, including 31 years at a nearby mental health center on the Rutgers University campus in Piscataway.
“You have to be able to handle things like being spat in the face by a kid that you worked with and invested a lot of energy and thought you had a pretty good relationship with,” Travis said. “I can’t imagine there was ever training to do that.”
Travis added: “These things get very, very emotional,” with kids who can quickly get very aggressive.
But Highland Park police officers go through a whole range of trainings on topics of mental health, according to Rizco, such as acute psychiatric training and dealing with persons on the autism spectrum disorder.
Police officers in New Jersey are required to undergo Community-Law Enforcement Affirmative Relations (CLEAR) training, which tries to incorporate mental health and bias incidents.