POLITICS

Why Did It Take A Federal Hate Crimes Charge To Get Rid Of This Racist Police Chief?

Frank Nucera allegedly slammed a Black teen’s head on a door and regularly used racial slurs. His trial raises major questions about police oversight.
Former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr., who is charged with federal crimes accusing him of beating a handcu
Former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr., who is charged with federal crimes accusing him of beating a handcuffed black teenager in 2016, was previously investigated by the FBI a decade ago. 2004 file photo File photo

CAMDEN, N.J. ― Former Bordentown Township Police Chief Frank Nucera Jr. is a racist. He denigrated non-white citizens, used racial slurs, and said Black people should “stay the f**k out of Bordentown,” the mostly white New Jersey suburb where Nucera was both police chief and township administrator.

Nucera called President Donald Trump the “last hope for white people” and referred to his officers in expletive-laden terms. He called his subordinates “millennial cunts,” “faggot pussies,” and “softer than baby shit.” Multiple officers said that Nucera was obsessed with ticket revenue, with one calling him a “traffic Nazi” who oversaw a small department that patrolled a 10-square-mile township and issued more tickets per year than the township had residents. 

One officer compared working for Nucera to being in a relationship with an abuser. Another said he was “less fearful of getting shot” than he was of Nucera. Even an officer who a colleague described as Nucera’s “best buddy” told the FBI that the chief “has a temper” and “should have retired 10 years ago.”

By the time the FBI began its criminal investigation into Nucera, nearly half of the officers in the 23-person police department had taken “the extraordinary measure of recording their own chief,” according to federal prosecutors. (Many of the epithets above came from Bordentown Township officers’ own recordings.)

Nucera seemed untouchable. When an anonymous officer wrote a letter complaining about Nucera to the local paper, Nucera had it seized and tested for fingerprints. When he didn’t like an online comment, Nucera reportedly wanted to subpoena the IP address to identify the commenter.

None of that was enough to end his career. 

It wasn’t until shortly before Nucera was charged with a number of federal offenses for allegedly slamming a Black teenager’s head into a doorjamb — becoming the first law enforcement officer in America to face a federal hate crimes case in at least a decade — that he finally stepped down.

Police tape in front of Justice Department headquarters
Police tape in front of Justice Department headquarters

This week, a federal jury sitting in Camden will begin deliberating on Nucera’s fate. His freedom, as well as his $8,800-a-month pension, are on the line. It’s usually extremely difficult to prove that an officer’s actions were motivated by discriminatory intent. But Nucera’s frequent racist outbursts gave federal prosecutors plenty of material to suggest the head slam was motivated by racial animus.

At the center of the Nucera case is the arrest of then-18-year-old Timothy Stroye at the Ramada hotel in Bordentown Township. A Ramada manager falsely believed that Stroye and his 16-year-old girlfriend, who were staying at the hotel with family, had been swimming in the pool without paying for a room. Stroye allegedly fought with officers, but Nucera’s alleged assault took place after Stroye was already in custody. Stroye was unable to afford his $7,500 bail and his father died during the three weeks he was in Burlington County Jail, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in November 2017, shortly after Nucera was charged.  

Stroye, who has since faced criminal charges in unrelated incidents, did not testify at Nucera’s trial.

When jurors begin deliberating the case after closing arguments on Wednesday, they’ll be focused on a set of narrow questions: whether the former chief slammed a handcuffed Black teenager’s head against a doorjamb on Sept. 1, 2016, whether that action was motivated by racial animus, and whether he lied to the FBI about the alleged assault.  

But Nucera’s trial also raises much larger questions about federal and local oversight of the police.

“I had lost all trust and confidence in the process,” said Brian Pesce, Bordentown Township’s current police chief, while testifying at Nucera’s federal trial in Camden. Pesce, who served under Nucera for 18 years, said he had witnessed a “history of indifference” from the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office.

Under former President Barack Obama, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division expanded investigations that examine unconstitutional policing, which can help end broader issues within law enforcement agencies. Federal civil rights investigations into police departments in cities like Newark, Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, identified major issues with internal affairs systems meant to hold officers accountable for their actions.

The Trump administration, by contrast, has retreated from police oversight, and nearly half of the police practice group within the Civil Rights Division’s special litigation section has departed since Trump took office. Under Trump, the Justice Department has avoided opening any investigations into police department practices, focusing instead on charging individual officers — like Nucera — with crimes. Other DOJ charges against “bad apples” involve well-documented excessive force cases like pepper-spraying handcuffed inmates, pistol-whipping suspects, beating shackled inmates, and kicking juveniles.

Nucera shaped the department in every way. He hired his own son, Frank Nucera III, who remains on the force. The issue presented by the Justice Department’s handling of the case is clear: If an outspoken racist was able to rise to the top of the Bordentown Township Police Department, are its practices, in addition to its chief, worth investigating?  

Police oversight is a tricky thing. Internal affairs systems are black holes, and the country is in what one expert called “total fog of ignorance” about how police misconduct cases are handled. There aren’t any real national standards, and flawed internal affairs processes are a common feature in troubled departments.

The Bordentown Township Police Department consists of fewer than two dozen officers. Like many small police departments, that presents a major challenge for running an internal affairs operation, which effectively becomes a part-time gig that nobody really wants because it means scrutinizing a colleague who you work with on a day-to-day basis.

Bordentown Township Detective Sgt. Salvatore Guido, for example, would rather not have to handle internal affairs cases. And based on his record, he probably shouldn’t: Guido witnessed Nucera’s alleged assault, failed to report it, and was later recorded saying the “fucking assholes” at the FBI shouldn’t get dashboard camera footage from the incident. Guido, who was a seemingly reluctant witness in the case against Nucera, told jurors he would “rather not be an internal affairs officer,” according to The Trentonian

Using the internal affairs system against Nucera wasn’t really an option. Nor was going to the township administrator: Nucera was splitting that typically full-time position with two other municipal employees. 

In New Jersey, officers can also escalate their complaints to the county prosecutor. But the township police and the county prosecutor’s office worked hand-in-hand on criminal cases, and former Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi and Nucera issued a number of joint press releases. One officer told the FBI that Nucera had Bernardi ― who had been the longest-serving county prosecutor in New Jersey ― “in his pocket.” Bernardi retired in March 2017, a few months after Nucera retired ahead of his eventual indictment. 

When now-Chief Pesce ran into Bernardi at an event in May 2017, Pesce said that Bernardi commented that it was “crazy” that the FBI probe into Nucera was ongoing. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” Bernardi reportedly remarked. (Bernardi did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment, while a spokesman for the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office, which is now under new leadership, declined to comment on the record because the case against Nucera was ongoing.)

In “these small town municipalities … there’s a lot of people being hired because of who they know, and there’s just a lot of cover given to the officers from people who are supposed to be investigating their conduct,” said Stanley King, a civil rights attorney in New Jersey. On big cases, he said, “You almost have to send it out of the county, because the relationships are much too close.”

Components of the FBI’s investigation also raise troubling issues with Bordentown Township’s policing practices. While the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey may have described officers’ complaints about ticket quotas as “mundane,” over-reliance on ticketing revenue created a host of constitutional issues in places like Ferguson and St. Louis County

Ticketing is a big source of revenue for municipal governments in the Garden State. A Bordentown Township budget document indicates the government collected $636,000 in ticket revenue in 2016, which was plenty to cover the cost of the municipal court and put a dent in the township’s annual $2.3 million police department budget. This evidently hasn’t been as much of a priority since Nucera’s departure: By 2018, municipal court revenue was down to $354,000, suggesting that the Nucera-era ticketing levels weren’t necessarily tied to public safety goals.

Federal civil rights investigators also might want to explore how Nucera’s distaste for non-white citizens impacted day-to-day policing in the township. Nucera, officers say, dispatched police dogs to a high school basketball game because the opposing team was mostly Black.

Another issue appears to be the threshold at which officers consider use of force to be excessive.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Selzer Lorber told jurors that Stroye “posed no threat to anyone” when Nucera slammed him into a doorjamb, and could neither see the blow coming nor brace himself against it. The Justice Department’s case against Nucera came to fruition in the fall of 2017, just a few months after President Donald Trump joked about police brutality ― and, specifically, hitting handcuffed suspects heads’ against objects ― in a speech before members of law enforcement. 

Nucera’s legal team admits to Nucera’s racist outbursts, but say that’s the only thing federal prosecutors can prove. There’s no video evidence of Nucera’s alleged assault, but two of his officers — including Nucera’s closest friend on the force — have testified that he did assault Stroye. After the assault, Nucera was recorded referring to Stroye as a “fucking little, fucking nigger” and his companions as “six unruly fucking niggers” and “pieces of shit,” though he never admitted in the recordings to slamming Stroye’s head on the door.

Court documents indicate that Nucera allegedly slamming Stroye’s head against a metal doorjamb ― an act that would represent a federal civil rights crime and a potentially hate crime ― didn’t initially strike other officers as a particularly noteworthy problem.

Before the FBI investigation began, now-Chief Pesce helped put together a document he called a “cry for help, a plea for investigation” that he intended to present to the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office, and potentially the township council. It outlined eight separate “racist acts” committed by Nucera. It included multiple incidents of Nucera using racial slurs, ranting about gay people, Black citizens and Indian Americans. But, in the description of the Stroye incident, it did not mention that Nucera slammed Stroye’s head against a doorjamb.

“I did not think that the assault on a handcuffed person was enough,” Pesce testified during the trial. Now jurors will decide if it was.

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