PATERSON, NJ – It was about 3 am on a Tuesday morning at the end of the winter of 2011 when three dancers from the Sunrise Gentleman’s Club went to the Egg Platter for something to eat after work. In the next booth were three off-duty Paterson police officers.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Newark this month, one of woman alleges that the three officers began slurring “sexually explicit, degrading and sexist epithets” at the women. The officers also made “vulgar remarks” about the women’s “attire and profession” that showed sexism and “bias against females,’’ the lawsuit said.
The federal complaint says those sexual comments precipitated a March 15, 2011 dispute that resulted in one of the dancers, Linette Vasquez of Paterson, being arrested and handcuffed to a bench in a Paterson police department holding cell, where video recording taken by a city surveillance camera seems to show one of the officers from the diner, Michael Avila, lifted her and slammed her to the ground.
Although the criminal accusations that Avila and Vasquez filed against each other were dismissed, the officer currently is serving a 90-day suspension on departmental charges and the City of Paterson faces what could prove to be a costly lawsuit filed by the dancer.
News 12 first broke the story about the alleged police brutality on January 18 and broadcast the video footage from the holding cell. The lawsuit, certified on January 23, included details that previously have not been disclosed, including the allegation that the officers made sexual comments to the women at the diner and the names of several other officers involved in the incident.
The lawsuit accuses the officers and the city of civil rights violations, false arrest, malicious prosecution, gender discrimination, negligence and various other offenses. The complaint says charges filed against Vasquez were a “pretext” for the “unlawful assault and battery and use of excessive force” against the dancer.
City administration officials have declined to comment on the case because of the pending litigation.
The lawsuit says Avila, who has been on the police force since 2005, was with two other officers at the diner – Andre Jackson and Michael Mezey. Vasquez’ attorney, Nancy Lucianna, said all three officers made offensive comments to the women, who were accompanied at the booth by a male friend of theirs.
At some point, Paterson Police Officer Juan C. Rodriguez arrived at the scene, the lawsuit says. At 3:40 pm, Vasquez was arrested, according to the complaint. Lucianna said it was Rodriguez who handcuffed her client and placed her in his patrol car, but it was Avila who filed the charges against the woman.
In May 2012, a grand jury dismissed an assault charge that Avila had filed against Vasquez, Lucianna said. Two other charges – inciting a riot and disorderly conduct – were sent to Paterson municipal court, the attorney said. Several times, Vasquez and Lucianna appeared in municipal court to contest those two charges, but Avila never showed up and eventually the other charges were dismissed in September 2012, according to the lawyer.
Then, in October 2012, a grand jury decided not to indict Avila for his alleged actions in the holding cell. “I’m not permitted in the grand jury room, I don’t know what they saw or heard,’’ Lucianna said when asked whether the grand jury viewed the surveillance video of the alleged attack.
After the grand jury took no action, the Paterson police department held a disciplinary hearing regarding Avila and imposed the current 90-day suspension, officials said.
The timing of that hearing could turn out to haunt the city. In at least one other case of alleged abuse by police officers, the city has waited to conduct disciplinary hearings until after the civil case was complete so that the departmental findings would not help the party suing the city, officials said. In this case, Vasquez had not yet filed her lawsuit when the police department went ahead with its charges against Avila.