WESTFIELD, NJ — The national outrage over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota, police has brought into the forefront a Westfield man’s 2006 death while in police custody.

Robert Villane, 35, died in November 2006 after Westfield police officers handcuffed and pepper sprayed him in an effort to move him to an ambulance, news reports from the time said. Officers had been called to Villane’s home at the request of a hospital’s psychiatric screening outreach team, one report said. Police then said Villane became physically combative, prompting officers to use the force. Villane's family continues to dispute the official police account of the incident.

“It was a horrific situation that went all wrong,” Robert Villane's brother, Don Villane, told the town council this week. “Robert died at the hands of police — the Westfield police. When we heard and saw the story about George Floyd, it brought the past smack into the present.”

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The Villane family never sued the police in connection with Robert Villane’s death but have pushed for reform in police tactics. Villane was white. 

“I have tried for over 13 years to make a change, but I felt as though my voice was a whisper,” Villane said at Tuesday’s virtual council meeting.

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More Westfield police officers, he said, should be taking a Crisis Intervention Training Class offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“We also have another part of our community and society that needs to be included: people of mental illness,” Villane said.

While Police Chief Christopher Battiloro did not respond directly to Villane’s comments Tuesday, he spoke broadly of reform in the Westfield Police Department, which he began heading up in 2018. Battiloro said the department has reissued 40 to 50 operating procedures, including its use of force policy.

“Our new use of force policy explicitly identifies what a choke-hold is and explicitly forbids it except in situations which are life threatening,” Battiloro said.

The department is also working to sell off surplus military equipment, he said.

As for officers’ use of force?

“I cannot remember the last time we received a complaint regarding the use of force let alone a sustained one,” Battiloro said.

In addition, the chief has required that his officers take training that teaches them how to better deal with people on the autism spectrum, who may not know to obey regular police commands.

Mayor Shelley Brindle, who formalized the appointment of members of the town’s newly formed Human Relations Advisory Committee to deal with issues of race and equity, said the council also formalized on Tuesday a committee to handle issues of mental health.

“Tonight, one of the things we’re doing is appointing and formalizing our Mental Health Commission, knowing that mental health is one of the things in the community that has not been proactively addressed,” Brindle said.

The mayor, who said she had not heard the Villane family’s story until reading about it in a letter to the editor last week, promised the town would do better.

“I am incredibly sorry about your brother,” Brindle told Villane. “And you’re absolutely right: It should not have been, and it will be a teaching and learning experience for all of us.”

For Villane and his family, the apology and pledge for change comes 14 years too late.

“I am embarrassed that our town has taken so long to finally admit that change is needed,” he said

Email Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net | Twitter: @MattKadosh

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