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Growing Concerns About Police Credibility in County Where Culture of Retaliation Dominates

During Jury Selection, Four Edison Police Officers Resign and Take Plea Deals For Planning Retaliation Against North Brunswick Cop
EPD and NBPD units
Edison and New Brunswick both seem to have had more than their fair share of police scandals. Charlie Kratovil

EDISON, NJ—Four Edison police officers, including a Sergeant, resigned and agreed to never hold public jobs in New Jersey ever again as part of a guilty plea in Superior Court.

At the time the agreement was reached, jury selection was underway for a trial that was sure to attract a lot of publicity.

The guilty quartet includes Michael Dotro, the troubled 36-year-old Edison police officer who lives in Manalapan, and has been accused of igniting a bomb outside the Monroe Township home of one of his bosses in a separate case.

It's just the latest chapter in a series of embarrassing scandals that have plagued the department, including shocking misconduct, dueling lawsuits, cover-up attempts and retaliatory investigations. 

Somehow, in 2015, the consumer research company Value Penguin named Edison as one of the top 30 cities in the United States to be a police officer.

The sprawling community that is state's fifth-largest municipality, was ranked the 29th best place to be a cop based on factors such as high average salary and a low per capita violent crime rate.

The research company said it based their rankings on criteria that would affect the quality of life for the officers in that city 

But if Value Penguin had taken into account factors such as politically-motivated retaliation, the diversity of the police force relative to the community they serve, or the integrity of Internal Affairs investigations, they might not have drawn the same conclusion about Edison.

For the past few decades, it seems Edison Police are making headlines for all the wrong reasons.  But so have many other police departments, especially those in Middlesex County and New York City.

The EPD has also been hit with a myriad of lawsuits, including many filed by police officers themselves.

Meanwhile, the state's largest newspaper famously wrote that it had identified "at least 30 Edison officers who were fired or who abruptly resigned amid allegations of inappropriate or illegal behavior over the past two decades."

Their internal affairs division was taken over by the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO) for six months in 2010 after it was caught investigating civilians, such as politicians and the family members of officers.

But it's not the only police department facing corruption allegations in Middlesex County, with the credibility of New Brunswick Police Department's internal affairs apparatus also recently called into question.

In 2011, NBPD Sgt. Richard Rowe the officer who handled that agency's internal affairs for the better part of a decade was criminally charged for mishandling 81 investigations into his fellow officers.

While the case against Rowe was progressing, recently-installed Police Director Peter Mangarella retired, and Mayor James Cahill replaced him with the recently-retired Director Anthony Caputo.  

Mangarella, who had previously supervised Rowe, was hired to the school district's top security position by the Mayor-appointed Board of Education shortly thereafter, allowing both Mangarella and Caputo to earn above-average salaries and six-figure pensions at the same time.

For his part, Mangarella says he was the one who first figured out that something was wrong with the way NBPD's Internal Affairs.

"Obviously, you're not getting the whole story... How do you think this got uncovered?" Mangarella asked this newspaper rhetorically.

"You're right, I was the supervisor [of Richard Rowe]... But after I left the unit, I was the guy. I'm the guy who went, 'Holy crap, we got a problem here.'"

While the charges against Rowe were brought by former County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan, Kaplan's replacement Andrew Carey has also brought cases against officers in Woodbridge Township, and the now-former Chief of Perth Amboy's Police Department.

Still, Edison is outmatched by no other law enforcement agency in New Jersey when it comes to negative attention and questions about its integrity.

"It sounds like there's trouble in River City," said one legislator who voted for a bill to have Edison's Internal Affairs functions taken over by the state Attorney General's Office as part of a two-year pilot program.

"When you read what goes on in Edison, it is way beyond the pale," said Senator Linda Greenstein, who chairs the Senate's Law & Public Safety Commitee.

The bill was sponsored by Peter Barnes, a former Democrat State Senator from Edison who left elected office to become a Superior Court judge, thanks to his nomination from Republican Governor Chris Christie.

In the wake of these most recent scandals, Barnes had announced his plan to grant county prosecutors the ability to fire police officers who they believe are unable to do their jobs.

Another bill also called for a pilot program giving the State Attorney General's Office increased oversight of the Edison police’s internal affairs department, as well as statewide grand juries when cops are accused of crimes.

If successful, Barnes said he would like to see the AG's Office take over internal affairs functions statewide.

Barnes, who has advocated for reforms and a state takeover of the internal affairs process, was permitted to preside over the committee meeting on his controversial IA takeover bill.

His proposals were openly supported by Edison Councilwoman Sapana Shah, and according to Barnes, are also supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.

But the proposed legislation has met with some resistance from within Edison, most notably from the Mayor, the Police Department, and Christie's former Acting Attorney General John Hoffman, who called it cumbersome, unworkable, and unnecessary.

In a town where cops have been convicted of an array of crimes ranging from rape to bank robbery, it is hard to comprehend how reforms to the Police Department could be seen as cumbersome or unnecessary.

Edison's newest representative in the legislature said the situation had "gotten better" in an exclusive interview with New Brunswick Today, and cited the continuing involvement of Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey in Edison's internal affairs.

Robert Karabinchak, who rose from a seat on the Edison Township Council to a seat in the State Assembly thanks to Barnes' departure, stopped short of saying he would support the reforms that Barnes had been pushing for.

"From when Peter [Barnes] first brought that bill up, the internal affairs people that were there are no longer there," said Karabinchak.  "That stigma or that philosophy of how they used to do things is no longer there... so it has gotten better."

"Underneath Mayor Lankey... and Chief Bryan and the Council have all been together saying that accountability is going to be the most important thing.  And that includes the police," said Karabinchak.

Still, the EPD has continued to garner negative publicity for its involvement in multiple police scandals, ranging from accusations of abuse of power to racial discrimination within the force, and of course, retaliation.

But for the fire-bombing incident, it's unlikely authorities ever would have brought charges against the other three men who are just the latest to be forced out of the EPD.

The other guilty pleas were entered by Sgt. William H. Gesell, a 48-year-old Edison resident, Officer Brian Favretto, a 41-year-old from Brick, and Officer Victor E. Aravena, a 45-year-old Edison resident.

In the wake of the "fire-bombing" in Monroe Township, prosecutors had seized the cell phones of many police in the department, and built a case against Dotro and three others for "a plan to retaliate against a North Brunswick police officer who had arrested another individual on a drunk-driving charge in 2012."

The MCPO still has not identitied the individual charged with the DWI, or the North Brunswick police officer.

"Dotro, who still faces charges in two unrelated cases, pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy, admitting he sought retaliation against the North Brunswick police officer who had ticketed another individual for drunk driving," reads the press statement from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO).

Favretto and Aravena pleaded guilty to obstruction of the administration of the law, while Gesell pleaded guilty to tampering with pubic records, "admitting he accessed computer records on the North Brunswick officer."

All four officers had been accused of conspiracy and official misconduct in an indictment.  Aravena was also charged with witness tampering, obstructing the administration of law, and official misconduct "for attempting to influence another police officer on May 12, 2013 to alter a police report in an unrelated investigation."

"An investigation by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office determined that no actual retaliation had been undertaken, however," reads the MCPO statement.

Previously the MCPO had alleged that, between January 18, 2012 and May 1, 2012, the cops "planned to improperly access information about the North Brunswick police officer and perform surveillance of him and his travel habits."

Favretto admitted "he tried to intervene in the drunk-driving case," and Aravena admitted "he passed along the computer records to Dotro to assist with the retaliation," according to the MCPO.

Sentencing is scheduled for January 13, 2017 at the county courthouse in downtown New Brunswick.

Each of the officers will likely be given the chance to avoid jail and instead be offerred "a probationary term," according to the press release, which we obtained despite all of our reporters being removed from the agency's media list in February.

But the sentencing will be far from Dotro's final court date.

Dotro is still facing attempted murder and arson charges, among others, in the fire-bombing case, where police say Captain Mark Anderko's order for Dotro to undergo a psychological evaluation, and tranfering him from the midnight shift to the day shift were the motives for the alleged arson.

On top of that, after resigning in disagrace amid his first criminal case, Dotro will still face additional unrelated charges, including:

  • buying less than an ounce of marijuana for his wife on various occasions in 2012
  • slashing the tires of a car owned by an Edison woman on March 17, 2013
  • unlawfully searching a police computer system to notify his wife of any reports on the slashing
  • possessing illegal weapons (black jack club, brass knuckles, imitation firearm) in his police duty bag
  • possessing marijuana and a device to smoke it in his police duty bag 

Dotro's prior record as an officer is blemished to say the least, with 11 excessive force complaints in the last decade. However, an anonymous document released last year made the case that Dotro was being framed for the firebombing thanks to collusion between the EPD and the MCPO.

In the document, the anonymous author details his belief that Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan wanted Dotro off the force so badly that he and investigator Todd O’Malley fabricated a case against Dotro.

"Basically Bryan wanted to get Dotro out of the EPD and would go to any means to do it... He was attempting to have Dotro terminated and basically was doing whatever it takes to get him.”

The author of the document claims to be a law enforcement official and wrote that he chose to be anonymous out of fear of retribution.

But Dotro's scandals, and the ensuing speculation, aren't the only issues vexing the EPD leadership these days.

The latest scandal comes on the heels of a protracted debate about what should happen to an EPD officer who intimidated a woman into modeling lingerie for him in her hotel room, and another who used racial slurs to refer to fellow police officers in private text messages.

Despite the decision of an independent hearing officer hired by Edison, which said Officer Anthony Sarni should return to the force after a suspension, Mayor Thomas Lankey overruled the hearing officer and fired Sarni.

But Superior Court Judge Douglas Wolfson upheld the hearing officer's decision, ultimately ruling that Edison's internal affairs investigators had botched the case, effectively overturning Mayor Lankey's decision.

The Lankey administration is currently appealing the ruling, but Sarni returned to the job in March.

The incident where Sarni abused his police power took place at the Extended Stay America in Raritan Center in September of 2012, but the details only became public after NJ.com's Brian Amaral obtained internal affairs (IA) documents via a court records request.

Sarni's punishment amounted to a years-long paid vacation, and some fairly high-profile attacks on his character. 

According to the documents obtained by Amaral, Sarni, who was 39 years old at the time, responded to a fire alarm call around midnight at the hotel where the woman was staying, which turned out to be a false alarm incited by someone spraying a fire extinguisher under the woman’s door.

Sarni noticed that the woman had numerous shopping bags on her hotel room floor, including a bag from the lingerie store Victoria’s Secret.

The officer then asked the woman if she would model some of her lingerie for him.  When she declined, Sarni reminded her that he had earlier allowed her flush a small amount of marijuana down the toilet, and that her “fate was in his hands.”

Sarni then left the hotel, but apparently not without ordering hotel staff to prevent the woman from changing rooms, something the officer denies.

Officer Sarni returned to the woman’s room around 2 a.m., now off-duty but still in uniform, and with his gun holstered at his side, sat in a chair next to the woman’s bed and again asked her to model lingerie for him.

This time she complied, and changed into a few outfits for the officer.  However, when Sarni stood up to show he had an erection, and asked if things could go further, she said no.

Officer Sarni finally left the hotel room. But over the next month, he began texting the woman, including some sexually explicit messages.

Finally, she filed a complaint with the Edison Police Department (EPD).

Sarni was suspended with pay in October 2013, and continued to earn about $123,000 a year until his firing 23 months later.  Judge Wolfson ordered for Edison to pay back pay to Sarni when he was re-instated. 

Ultimately, Sarni re-gained his badge and his gun because internal affairs investigators violated "the 45-day rule," which prevents officers from being punished by their own department more than 45 days after IA found out about the wrongoing.

Sarni was also represented by powerful attorney Stephen D. Cahn, who also represents the Middlesex County Planning Board.  Sarni had sent the township "a notice of claim," the first step towards filing a lawsuit during his prolonged suspension.

NJ.com's Brian Amaral provided in-depth coverage of the case, including what it meant for public discourse:

But Sarni's threat of a lawsuit could help chill such rigorous and public discourse about police misconduct at a time when national debate over the issue is at a fever pitch, fostering secrecy and impunity when the exact opposite is needed, critics say.

"Maybe the cop is right, but the rules underscore the bigger problem: There is no information available about how this system works," said John Paff, an open government advocate.

A departmental hearing was held earlier this year in the Sarni case, but a decision hasn't yet been made. Few other details about the hearing are public. Disciplinary files for other workers — from lawyers to electricians to teachers — are much more public, Paff noted. That's despite the fact that police officers have many more rights and responsibilities, such as carrying guns, using force and making arrests.

"Why is it that the system is so opaque?" Paff said. "That is the problem."

Sarni is not the only member of the EPD whom the MCPO has determined is unfit to testify in a criminal case.

During an investigation into Dotro, racist text messages were discovered on the phone of Officer David Pedana, who was then 34 years old, including some offensive references to his own colleagues.

Like in the Sarni case, Edison Township initially moved to fire Pedana after the discovery of the texts, but a hearing officer deemed that punishment too harsh and instead gave him a 95-day suspension.

In response to this decision, the MCPO announced that it would no longer consider Pedana to be a credible government witness in a criminal case.

Although the actions of these two officers may seem like the worst a municipal police department has to offer, history indicates that these actions that have been exposed may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the internal crisis facing that department.

Both Sarni's and Pedana's cases sparked a larger question about the credibility of officers, after the MCPO announced that it would throw out any criminal case which would require the testimony of Edison's two compromised officers.

That revelation came in a letter sent to the EPD, and obtained by reporters.

That unprecedented development meant that prosecutors could potentially have increased power to hasten the end of a police officer's career, by compromising their ability to to serve.

But, of course, Sarni and Pedana have managed to keep their paid positions, as well as their police powers and their service weapons despite the black marks on their record from the MCPO.

Carey, himelf, has at least one potential black mark on his record.  New Brunswick Today learned that Carey appears to have made repeated ethics violations by declining to name the specific politically-connected law firm where his wife works on his financial disclosure forms filed with the state.

The Edison cases, and questions about Carey's integrity come at a time when citizens are increasingly questioning the integrity of individual police officers, and some agencies as a whole.

The public radio station WNYC spent five months looking at how often the New York Police Department (NYPD) had conducted investigations into the credibility of its own police officers.

The research found more than 120 officers with documented credibility issues over the past ten years, but the list was not complete.

Laws in New York state are among the strictest in the country when it comes to keeping officers' disciplinary records a secret.

"It's an incomplete list because state law makes most records of police misconduct confidential," said the reporter.

"There's a video camera everywhere these days, and more an more, they're catching cops who lie," says an WYNC reporter. "Last year, the [Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB)] flagged as many officers for making false statements as the previous four years combined."

Newark is the only city in New Jersey that has a CCRB, a relatively new development that is still in the process of being implemented.

However, residents and activists in other communities including New Brunswick have called for civilian review of police actions, contending the state's internal affairs apparatus was flawed.

Most recently, hundreds of community members came together this July, twice marching on Carey's office to demand answers in the fatal shooting of Diahlo Grant.

Grant was killed by Franklin Township cops on April 9 in New Brunswick.  The MCPO has not released any videos or evidence from the fatal incident, and provided only a very brief explanation to the public.

Since that day, Carey or his office have repeatedly refused to comment on the case.