What’s next for Paterson after Spencer Finch's acquittal on excessive force charges?

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PATERSON — The assault acquittal of former city Police Officer Spencer Finch on Thursday broke a streak of nine consecutive criminal convictions of Paterson cops.

The initial charges against Finch were filed in June 2021 after a crew of rogue city law enforcement officers admitted such crimes as selling drugs out of a police car, shaking down people they illegally stopped and beating a suicide patient in a hospital emergency room.

Amid all that, the Finch case represented multiple milestones in what City Hall officials proclaimed was an effort to rebuild trust in the Police Department.

Paterson's first case with body-camera video evidence

Screenshot from a May 26 incident involving Paterson police officer Spencer Finch.
Screenshot from a May 26 incident involving Paterson police officer Spencer Finch.

Finch was the first Paterson cop accused of a crime in which body-camera video was being used as evidence. He was the first city police officer brought up on charges after the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office began overseeing Paterson’s Internal Affairs division. And he became the first accused cop fired from his Paterson job while criminal charges were pending against him.

"We are ushering in a new era of accountability in Paterson," Mayor Andre Sayegh said at the time of Finch’s termination.

With video evidence that showed Finch hitting a handcuffed man, Brandon Cosby, in the face with his knee, even some Paterson police officers and their advocates were privately questioning his decision to fight the charges and reject a plea agreement that would have put him in prison for three years.

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But Finch — with the help of his tenacious defense lawyer Eric Kleiner — proved his doubters wrong by prevailing in a 17-day trial with a not-guilty verdict, with ramifications that may go far beyond this one case in a city that has long struggled with strained relations between its cops and its citizens.

Within minutes of the verdict, local social justice advocates were calling the jury’s decision “a disgrace,” saying it was another example of “these constant miscarriages of justice” that fail to hold police officers accountable.

Meanwhile, Matt Priore, the lawyer representing Cosby in his lawsuit against Finch and Paterson, issued a statement Thursday night taking exception to what he called “clearly inadmissible racially offensive references and comments” about Cosby that were allowed during the criminal trial.

Priore cited Kleiner’s questions to Finch about Cosby — who is Black — possibly being on cocaine or PCP, even though Finch never mentioned drugs in his initial police reports and there was never any toxicology test that showed he had taken illegal substances.

Priore also noted the defense’s statements about Cosby’s “superhuman strength," language that he said gets used in a prejudicial way against African Americans, and what he called unfounded suggestions that Cosby was trying to commit suicide by cop.

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“The defense had over two years to fabricate a defense to appeal to a jury, which surprisingly consisted of 11 white members,” Priore said.

But Kleiner asserted after the verdict that Finch was the epitome of innocence, a 17-year officer wrongly targeted by the Prosecutor’s Office for simply protecting a woman involved in a domestic dispute by restraining and arresting the man who was screaming outside her apartment door.

Kleiner told the jury during the trial that Finch’s flashlight blows against the man’s head area and his knee to the man’s face were part of the normal rough-and-tumble world of Paterson police work, physical force that was needed to keep the man from hurting anyone or escaping.

Kleiner took exception to Priore’s assertion that he fabricated a defense, and he called Priore’s client a “criminal terrorizer.”

“His civil case, like the criminal case, is dead on arrival and in the trash bin, where it belongs,” Kleiner said. “Priore injecting race to the case after the fact is pure baiting, and it was not even a part of the case at all.”

“The jury saw through the lies of the prosecution,” Kleiner added.

In a written statement, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office said: “Finch was terminated from his employment with the Paterson Police Department in November 2021 following an administrative hearing where a hearing officer found the City of Paterson had just cause to discipline him for violations of the Paterson Police Department's body-worn camera policy, use of force policy, report writing policy, and other policies. The progress and outcome of the administrative hearing were not conditioned upon any outcome in the criminal matter.”

The statement went on to say: “The conduct witnessed by so many through the release of another officer’s body-worn camera footage that captured Finch’s actions was inexcusable, and it undermines the trust between our officers and those they serve. While we will not comment on the determination made by the jury, its acquittal of Finch changes nothing about his employment as an officer.”

Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes, Paterson Police Department Officer in Charge Isa Abbassi and the mayor all have remained silent on the verdict.

Unanswered questions

Here are some of the major questions that loom in the aftermath of the Finch acquittal:

Will the Prosecutor’s Office continue with another case accusing Finch of assaulting a man suspected of stealing ice cream from a deli in 2018?

The Prosecutor’s Office waited more than four years to file charges in the 2018 incident, presenting it to a grand jury only after the indictment in the 2021 case. Officials and lawyers familiar with the two incidents have said the evidence in the 2021 matter seemed much stronger than the basis for the charges in the 2018 encounter.

What will Finch do?

Some Paterson police officers already are wondering whether he will seek to regain his job as a city cop. Finch is in his mid-40s, and his 17 years on the job put him several years short of key service time milestones for pension payments. City officials have privately said their decision to fire Finch would be irrevocable, but those statements were made before the acquittal. There’s been some speculation in law enforcement circles that Finch will file his own wrongful termination lawsuit against the city.

Will Paterson have to pay Finch’s legal bill?

The last time a Paterson cop was acquitted of criminal charges in a trial was more than 15 years ago. That was the prisoner sex case against then-Officer Manuel Avila. Paterson eventually covered Avila’s more-than-six-figure legal tab for his trial. Kleiner on Thursday brushed aside a reporter’s question about the legal fees. City officials did not respond to a similar inquiry.

What impact will the acquittal have on Cosby’s civil lawsuit?

There’s no question that a conviction would have strengthened Cosby’s case in the civil proceedings, said lawyers involved in government litigation. “Criminal trials are very different from civil trials,” Priore said.

In the recent criminal trial, Priore pointed out, the jury was not told important information about Finch, including that the city had fired him, that he faced another pending indictment in an alleged excessive-force case, and that he was one of the targets of a previous police brutality lawsuit settled for about $600,000.

Priore said the prosecutor tried to block Kleiner’s comments about Cosby’s “superhuman strength” and the defense lawyer’s references to Cosby’s possible drug use. But Superior Court Judge Marilyn Clark denied the prosecution’s motions to prevent such questioning.

“While I have the utmost respect for the trial judge,” Priore said, “it appears that she went too far in attempting to give officer Finch a fair trial and allowed evidence that was unduly prejudicial to the state.”

Cosby’s lawsuit had been put on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case. That litigation remains in the preliminary stages.

Another excessive force case

There’s another high-profile cop case looming for Paterson.

At the end of February, two city police officers — Kevin Patino and Kendry Tineo-Restituyo — are scheduled to go to trial in federal court in Newark in a United States Attorney's Office civil rights complaint accusing them of an unprovoked attack on a man in South Paterson in December 2020, another incident captured on video.

That incident drew law enforcement attention only after the alleged victim’s internal affairs complaint went nowhere and the recordings began circulating on social media.

On the same day in April 2021 when federal authorities issued a press release about the arrests of Patino and Tineo-Restituyo, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office announced that the Passaic County prosecutor would oversee the IA division in the Paterson Police Department. That intervention ended after 17 months.

Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press. Email: editor@patersonpress.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Paterson NJ: Spencer Finch's acquittal leaves questions