In response to video that shows Jersey City police allegedly kicking and dragging someone from a fiery car crash after a long chase last weekend, the Hudson County prosecutor says the matter is being intensely investigated and has asked the public both for help and for patience.
The Tonnelle Avenue incident puts Jersey City in the cross hairs of national attention. For the most part, the city’s police have avoided much of the negative publicity that has highlighted confrontations elsewhere in the country and which has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement.
“On Sunday, June 4, shortly after 11 p.m., Jersey City police officers attempted to stop a vehicle in the area of Ocean and Cator avenues in Jersey City,” said a statement from the office of Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez. “The vehicle fled the area and was pursued by officers. The fleeing driver, Leo C. Pinkston, age 48, of Jersey City, was allegedly involved in at least two separate automobile crashes. The first crash occurred as he allegedly attempted to drive between two lanes of traffic while travelling on Tonnelle Avenue. Multiple shots were fired at the suspect by Jersey City police officers. Several blocks later, Pinkston crashed into a utility pole, causing a fire and injuring an innocent male victim who was also driving on Tonnelle Avenue.”
The statement said the victim, Miguel Feliz-Rodriguez, age 28, of West New York, was transported by Emergency Medical Services to The Burn Center at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. He is currently in stable condition.
Pinkston, who is African-American, has been charged with one count of eluding, and one count of aggravated assault. He is being held at the Hudson County Correctional Facility. His next court appearance is a detention hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. on Thursday, June 15.
In an update on the investigation issued by the prosecutor’s office on Thursday, June 8, Suarez said the investigation into the events of Sunday night in Jersey City is ongoing.
“I am asking the community to withhold any judgment until the Office of the Hudson County Prosecutor concludes its investigation,” Suarez said. “There will be a swift and fair review of all the evidence being accumulated, but it would be irresponsible to rush to judgment without reviewing all of the facts before us.”
She said in order to properly investigate this matter, her office will need to conduct and review multiple crash investigations involving more than five vehicles, review over 15 videos containing several hours of evidence, interview more than 20 witnesses, and conduct a ballistics investigation into multiple shootings.
“We will consider this evidence in its entirety as we investigate the actions of all individuals who were involved with the events of Sunday night in Jersey City and we are asking for patience from the public,” she said.
“There have been many inquiries about a video being utilized by several media outlets concerning Sunday night’s police involved shooting in Jersey City,” Suarez in a release issued earlier in the week. “I’d like to thank the individual who came forward with this video and I’d like the public to know that we welcome their help. This video is now part of all the evidence we are considering as we investigate the actions of all individuals who were involved with the events of Sunday night in Jersey City. Our investigators have reviewed the video and we believe with certainty that this man is the bystander from West New York who suffered burns, not the individual pursued by police. As I previously said, we will utilize all resources available to the Prosecutor’s Office for a full and thorough investigation as we seek to bring this matter to a rightful conclusion.”
“We have serious concerns about the conduct of this pursuit; however, we are reserving judgment until the conclusion of the prosecutor’s investigation.” – Jennifer Morrill
City officials have said they had “serious concerns” with how the police conducted the pursuit.
“This investigation was immediately turned over to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, as we do with any incidents in which an officer discharges his or her weapon or uses deadly force and as is required by attorney general guidelines,” said city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill.
“We have serious concerns about the conduct of this pursuit; however, we are reserving judgment until the conclusion of the prosecutor’s investigation,” she said. “To be clear, we are working with the HCPO and are in the process of identifying the officers on this video. Once we clearly identify all the officers involved we will be seeking termination in addition to any possible criminal penalties in appropriate cases.”
Mayor Steven Fulop also Tweeted about the video on Wednesday night, calling the behavior shown “unacceptable.”
Fulop holds a brief press conference
In a brief press conference prior to the swearing in of new police officers on June 8, Fulop looked slightly worn out, but reiterated his statement that if the investigation shows inappropriate action on the part of the police, the officers would be terminated.
During the five-minute press conference, Fulop gave few additional details, although other news reports claim that the activity of six or seven officers may be examined.
Police sources inside the department said that the officers involved were not wearing body cameras and cars did not have cameras to help dispute the apparently damning news video.
Officers with knowledge of the investigation said the prosecutor may be seeking to look at public and private surveillance video that may shed more light on the events that happened that night.
Also being investigated is the use of firearms by the officers during the extended pursuit and whether these discharges where proper. Police sources say it is standard practice for officers who discharge weapons in the line of duty and must provide a complete report to justify discharge of a firearm.
Jersey City is now on the national radar
The alleged beating on Tonnelle Avenue has the potential to focus more scrutiny on Jersey City.
The mayor’s statements about termination have also riled some rank-and-file officers, who feel that this came too soon and prior to the conclusion of an investigation into exactly what happened.
Some officers even dispute some of the claims made in the media about the incident itself such as whether the police set up a police roadblock that forced the driver into the crash that ultimately led to the burning vehicle.
At least one officer said the roadway was not completely blocked and that the driver had other options than the one that led to the crash.
These details are among the pieces of the puzzle. An examination of law enforcement, traffic and business security cameras by the prosecutor’s office will be examined to determine the truth.
This will become a political issue
There is no time frame for the conclusion of the investigation, although it appears that behind the scenes police and city officials want a quick resolution to the matter, because the event comes at a time when the city is already confronted with increasing gun related crimes in the southern part of the city.
There have already been 11 murders prior to the start of summer when most years have seen an increase. With municipal election campaigns on the horizon, violence and police training have become an issue.
Bill Matsikoudis, who is running against Fulop for mayor in November, claims the police department has become too political, filled with favoritism that hurts morale. Matsikoudis proposed a program that would revamp police training for incoming officers to change the philosophy.
“We need more police walking the beat and out of their cars, but we also need robust interaction between the police and a variety of community contacts,” he said. “Community policing combines traditional policing with prevention, problem-solving, community engagement, and partnerships.”
He said the mindset of cops has to change.
“There has to be a modification of the mindset and philosophy through training away from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.