Sometimes It's Not Just One Bad Apple; It's The Whole Barrel

When my brother called to tell me about the arrest of former Bordentown Township police chief Frank Nucera Jr. last week, I burst into tears.

Nearly 13 years ago, my father was hit by a car and killed in Bordentown, NJ. Nucera apparently wasn’t the chief back then, but he was on the force – a police force that assumed things about my dad that weren’t true, neglected my father’s well-being and gave a pass to the person who killed him.

Nucera is now facing a federal hate crime charge and a federal civil rights charge stemming from other alleged incidents, but this didn’t just start and end with him. As I have long maintained for over a decade, that entire police department must be investigated to reveal its culture of prejudice and how it treats certain segments of society as second-class citizens. The sad reality is that this isn’t even confined to just the Bordentown Township Police Department; there are voiceless victims across the country who suffer in silence and never receive a semblance of justice.

In March of 2005, my father, Suleman Ahmed Khan, was exiting an Acme grocery store in Bordentown when a driver failed to yield to pedestrians in this parking lot and struck him. The impact was so severe that when he hit the ground, he sustained massive head trauma and hemorrhaging. When the police and EMTs arrived on the scene, they assumed that because of his name, because of his brown skin, he could not speak English and put a “language barrier” in their EMS report. He was a citizen of this country for decades and here even before I was born. We spoke to my dad in English 95% of the time. After he was hit, they sent him to a non-trauma hospital despite the fact that a trauma center was virtually the same distance away. By the time he was taken to a trauma facility about five hours later, he’d fallen into a coma. He died three days later.

The news hit my family like a wrecking ball. Stunned and devastated, we searched for answers: How fast was this driver going in a parking lot? Why wasn’t this person charged with a crime? Why did the police close the case so quickly? As we struggled to put the pieces together, the Bordentown Township police were not only unhelpful – they treated my family and I in a manner that can only be described as atrocious.

Losing my dad, someone we loved dearly and who sacrificed so much for his family, in a car-vs-pedestrian accident was horrendous enough, but that would turn out to be just the beginning of our ordeal. Soon, this pain was coupled with a search for justice for my father, punishment for the person who carelessly hit him and accountability for a police force whose seemingly deep-rooted, almost casual racism likely contributed to his death. A journalist by education and training, I did what the police didn’t do: I began asking questions.

In the days following the incident, my uncle and I found witnesses on our own. These witnesses told us that cops refused their statements even though they were willing to go on the record. They told us that at least 15 to 20 people surrounded my father, and that he was struggling to speak and having difficulty moving. One witness that was deposed by our attorney said the following: “I noticed that the vehicle was traveling faster than any other vehicle in the parking lot … If the driver was not driving as fast as she was, the driver should of been able to stop her vehicle before hitting the pedestrian.” When we finally received a thin police report of the accident more than a month after the fact, it only included one witness statement – a witness who corroborated the driver’s account of not speeding.

During the weeks following my dad’s death, my family and I continuously contacted the police department, but our calls went unanswered. The police chief at the time, Danny Kiernan, instead made comments to a local newspaper expressing his own personal opinion as to what happened. “Everybody who witnessed the accident said the woman was not driving recklessly,” he said. “It wasn’t like she was racing through the parking lot.” The reporter also cites this chief as saying that the driver was only driving about 5 mph at the time.

The county, Burlington County, almost immediately closed the case following the accident, and only re-opened it after pressure from us. We met with Burlington County prosecutors and two detectives in early July and learned that the accident was never even reported to the DMV’s fatality unit which can separately revoke or suspend a driver’s license in fatal accidents. The county assured us that it would be reported. We learned that the driver was never checked for drugs or alcohol. At this time, my family and I were also given additional pages to the police report that we never had in our possession. These pages included a lengthy hand-written statement from the driver with her version of events, as well as a ‘careless driving’ summons issued to this person that was dated about a month from the incident.

Many months following the death of my father, the DMV told us that they did receive a report of the accident ‘some time ago’ but when the police faxed over the file, only a cover sheet came through and the rest of the file was ‘incomplete’ and therefore they were unable to proceed with any suspension of the driver’s license.

Burlington County claimed they found no wrongdoing on the part of the Bordentown Township Police Department after their ‘investigation’. My family and I knew otherwise. I contacted the Office of the Attorney General, Division of Criminal Justice (which overseas all 21 counties in the state). I sent paperwork, including the deposed witness statements, and highlighted the police department’s suspicious work and behavior. I mentioned that an officer even admitted to me that they knew the driver and it seemed blatantly clear that they were doing everything to assist this person.

Following their ‘investigation’, I was told that the state would not pursue the matter further because of the one witness in the police report, as well as the driver’s hand-written statement as they both show the driver was not speeding. In December of ’05, I received a formal notice from John J. Dell’Aquilo, the Deputy Attorney General of the Prosecutors Supervision & Coordination Bureau with the Division of Criminal Justice stating in part: “Based on my review of the case, I have determined that there was no abuse of discretion on the part of the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office or the Bordentown Police Department regarding the handling of this matter.”

I exhausted every avenue I could think of. For more time than I can even recall, I sought to have the police department investigated to no avail. It was as if I was screaming at the top of my lungs but there was only deafening silence all around me. I was able to get a reporter from NBC Philadelphia to look into the case, and after one of our court hearings, this reporter had tears in her eyes as she spoke to my mother and I. To quote her: “they treated you guys like you were the criminals.” Unfortunately, her piece never aired.

This reporter was absolutely correct; they did treat us as if we were on trial. The judge yelled at my mother at one point. The prosecutor barely spoke with us and instead stood alongside the driver. I asked the judge to explain why the careless driving ticket was dated nearly a month from the accident; he said he could not explain why. The prosecutor, who should be prosecuting on behalf of the victims (us), continuously made statements defending the driver and asking for leniency. At one point the judge was actually going to suspend the driver’s license for 30 days and the prosecutor advocated against it, stating that it wasn’t necessary. In the end, this person who ended my father’s life, paid around $200 dollars for the careless driving ticket plus court fees. My mother lost her husband and my three siblings and I lost our dad forever.

Last week, almost 13 years after my family’s quest for justice began, I learned that a member of that police department, a former police chief, was arrested and is facing federal charges. He is alleged to have slammed a Black 18-year-old’s head into a metal doorjamb. In addition, there are a litany of shocking statements he reportedly made in reference to African Americans, including referring to them as “ISIS” and allegedly saying that “they should line them all up and mow ’em down”.

Another officer apparently secretly recorded Nucera over the course of a year. While I commend this officer for taking proactive measures against someone he witnessed doing wrong, I maintain that the entire department needs to be examined. It’s what I tried so desperately to have done over a decade ago. How much of this could have been prevented if someone took action back then? And how many other cases in this department need to be re-opened and re-examined because of Nucera alone?

The township, the police department and even the state would like to have us believe that this was a lone officer and not representative of the department itself, but this was the prevalent attitude and culture of that police force that I witnessed throughout my dealings. Nucera moved up in the ranks, became police chief and therefore set the tone of that place. As such, everything and everyone must now be scrutinized.

We often speak of justice and the law, but what sort of recourse do normal citizens have when those tasked with upholding the law are the ones who are defying it? And what can people do when a legal system designed to safeguard police in every manner - from the prosecutors to the judges - further silences you? I thankfully have the ability to write about this now and share my dad’s story, but what about so many others who do not? Who speaks for them?

Proving that an inherent culture of racism and negligence exists within a police department, coupled with the fact that they may have covered up things and attempted to assist a defendant is without a doubt one of the most difficult things to do. It literally becomes your word against theirs; or rather, your word against an entire department and an entire system that is designed to protect law enforcement and shield them from accountability. Even as a journalist, I was unable to get anyone to hear me.

They say justice delayed is justice denied. It’s been over 10 years since my father died, and my family and I had to accept the painful fact that no one would be truly held liable for the racism, negligence and misconduct that contributed to the horrific tragedy. It may be too late for him, but it is not too late to prevent others from having to endure what we did. The truth of the matter is that this isn’t just about his death or any one police department; it is about the fact that these kinds of atrocities take place every single day, all across this country with no accountability. It is about a culture of policing that often values some lives - and not others.

Police reform and criminal justice reform aren’t just abstract concepts - they are what we as a society must embrace and implement. The problem is systemic and requires change from top-to-bottom. We can’t dance around the issue, nor can we afford to wait nearly 13 years for the truth to come out.

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