What Happens When Racist Cops Walk
If the FBI can’t even hold police accountable, then where does that leave my family and others in seeking justice?
In the barrage of endless breaking news, you wouldn’t be alone if you likely missed a recent important story: the federal hate crime trial of a former New Jersey police chief. For three weeks this fall, a jury in Camden, New Jersey, listened and deliberated over the fate of Frank Nucera Jr., who served as chief of the Bordentown Township Police Department until his resignation in 2017. Nucera faced three counts: a federal hate crime charge, deprivation of civil rights under color of law, and lying to the FBI. Back in 2005, when Nucera was deputy chief, I tried to have this very same police department investigated for what I said was a culture of racism, negligence, and corruption after my dad’s death. Too bad nobody listened then.
“Despite what the defense tells you, those aren’t just words, they’re elements of a crime,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Gribko in closing arguments of the Nucera trial. “The defendant is not being charged for his words. He’s being held accountable for his actions.”
The charges against Nucera stemmed from an incident in September of 2016 when he allegedly slammed a black teenager’s head into a metal doorjamb while the 18-year-old was in handcuffs. The prosecution’s star witness, K-9 officer Nathan Roohr of the Bordentown Township police force, testified that he saw Nucera slam the teen’s head “like a basketball” into the doorjamb and that the impact was so hard that it made a loud “thud.”
Roohr, who actually began making secret audio recordings of Nucera prior to this date because he said he was alarmed by the former chief’s escalating behavior, took his concerns to the FBI and then worked with them to record Nucera for over a year. In total, federal authorities ended up with 81 audio recordings of Nucera, many of which included a litany of outrageous racist statements.
“These n___ are like ISIS, they have no value,” Nucera said, according to one recording. “They should line them all up and mow ’em down. I’d like to be on the firing squad, I could do it. I used to think about if I could shoot someone or not, I could do it, I’m tired of it.”
“Donald Trump is the last hope for white people cause Hillary will give it to all the minorities to get a vote,” he is heard saying in another audio clip. “That’s the truth! I’m telling you. I think about that more and more. He is, he’s the last hope for the fucking white people... she’ll sell the vote to whoever she can. Guatemalans, Russians, Nicaraguans, spics, blacks, you name it.”
“I’ll tell you what, it’s getting to the point where I could shoot one of these motherfuckers. And that n___ bitch lady, she almost got it.”
Nucera referred to the teen in that September 2016 incident as a “fucking little, fucking n___”, and his girlfriend and her family members as “six unruly fucking n____” and “pieces of shit.”
He said black people should “stay the fuck out of Bordentown.”
Those are just a sampling.
Nucera also ranted about Indian Americans, gays, and others according to reports. Authorities said he ordered the use of police dogs to intimidate black fans at local high school basketball games. But despite the 81 recordings and testimony from officer Roohr, coupled with the testimony of other officers, including a former captain (now the current chief) who said Nucera was “very abusive” at times and prone to “fits of rage,” the jury of three black women and nine white members couldn’t come to a unanimous decision on the two main charges of hate crime and deprivation of civil rights. After eight days of deliberation, a federal judge declared a mistrial on those two counts on October 11.
The jury did, however, find Nucera guilty of lying to the FBI earlier that same week, but now four of the white jurors are saying they regret their decision and allege they were bullied by the black jurors. The black jurors emphatically deny that accusation according to reports, but the defense is still trying to use it as justification to get Nucera’s one conviction overturned. A sentencing date for that conviction of lying to the FBI is scheduled for February 6, and it carries a max of five years. Federal prosecutors plan to retry Nucera on the other two main charges and a tentative retrial date is set for March 16.
“It’s an unusual situation where police officers are testifying against one another — not something we see often.”
Based on reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer, what transpired during jury deliberation is eye-opening and a vivid example of how difficult it is to prove racism in a court of law, as well as a microcosm for so much else happening in society today. The Inquirer’s piece included two of the black jurors who indicated that there was yelling, screaming, and crying over those pivotal eight days. One of those black jurors said that a white juror accused her of voting to convict only because she was black; another white juror who apparently has black family members came to her defense the next day. Things got so deep that even three or four of the white men who were in favor of finding Nucera guilty were crying according to this black juror. In the end, they deadlocked with nine wanting to rule guilty and three against it.
“It’s an unusual situation where police officers are testifying against one another — not something we see often,” judge Robert Kugler said as he addressed members of the jury.
That is an understatement.
Nucera is the first law enforcement officer in at least a decade to face a federal hate crimes case. And let’s be clear: the only reason why we learned of the extensive catalog of his racist statements and his violent behavior against a black teen was because another officer decided to break down the blue wall of silence.
In March of 2005, my father, Suleman Ahmed Khan, was leaving an Acme grocery store in Bordentown when a driver failed to yield to pedestrians in the parking lot, and hit him with their car. The impact was so severe that according to witnesses, he flew back five or six feet and hit the ground, resulting in massive head trauma, hemorrhaging, and other injuries. When the police and EMTs arrived on the scene, they assumed that because of his name, and because of his brown skin, he could not speak English and put a “language barrier” in their report. As he lay there struggling and fighting for his life, they made the decision to send him to a non-trauma hospital despite the fact that a trauma center was virtually the same distance away.
I was the first one to reach the non-trauma hospital. Nurses asked me if my dad spoke English because of the “language barrier” in the report; my father was in this country for decades and we spoke to him in English 95% of the time. During these critical hours after he was hit, he suffered greatly, including throwing up blood over and over again. As I tried to briefly communicate with him when I first arrived, and essentially heard his last words, his eyes slowly began to close and would never open again. By the time he was taken to a trauma facility about five hours later, he’d fallen into a coma. Doctors drilled a hole into his head to relieve pressure, but it wasn’t enough. He died three days later.
Their seemingly deep-rooted, almost casual racism fostered an utter disregard for my dad’s life.
Losing a loved one in this manner is shocking, devastating, and a horrific ordeal by itself, but the way in which the Bordentown Township PD behaved and treated my family only exacerbated our pain and suffering. Their seemingly deep-rooted, almost casual racism fostered an utter disregard for my dad’s life, his value, and in turn our own worth. It is why I began raising the alarm bells about that police department nearly 15 years ago, but unfortunately nobody took my concerns seriously.
There were days upon days when the police department wouldn’t return our phone calls as we tried to figure out what exactly happened. Even as my dad was dying in the hospital, doctors were asking us if he hit his head on something before hitting the ground or hit the ground directly after he was struck because they didn’t have such simple, vital information from the police. In the days and weeks that followed, there were many other phone calls to the Bordentown Township PD that were not returned, and we received a letter from the Burlington County Prosecutor’s office stating that their “investigation” into the incident was closed literally a day after his death. My family and I searched for answers on our own.
The Sunday after my dad’s death, my uncle and I put up fliers everywhere and distributed them outside of the Acme grocery store asking if anyone had witnessed the incident. We ended up locating several people who said they did, and eventually had a few of these witnesses deposed who told us that there were at least 15 to 20 people surrounding my dad after he was hit. They told us that the driver was speeding and others told us that cops refused their statements even though they were willing to go on the record. One witness that was deposed by our attorney said, “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 more than a month after the fact, it only included one witness statement — a witness who corroborated the driver’s account of not speeding.
As our calls to the Bordentown Township PD went unanswered, the 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 who wrote that piece also cited this chief as saying that the “driver was only driving about 5 mph at the time.”
Never once did he call us back.
Frustrated with the Bordentown Township PD’s behavior, my family and I took our concerns to the Burlington County Prosecutor’s office, headed up at time by Robert Bernardi. Not only did we have them reopen their investigation into the case, but also filed complaints about the police department’s pattern and practices and their culture of racism and negligence. My mother and I met with members of this office and two detectives in early July of 2005. It was at that point that we learned that the driver was never even checked for drugs or alcohol. We discovered that the accident was never 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.
At this time, my family and I were also given additional pages to a police report that we never had in our possession. These pages included a lengthy handwritten statement from the driver with her version of events, as well as a “careless driving” summons issued to the driver that was dated about a month from the incident. Despite Burlington County’s reassurances, the DMV’s fatality unit later told our attorney at the time that they received a report of the accident “some time ago” but when police faxed over the file, only a cover sheet came through. The rest of the file was incomplete and therefore the DMV was unable to move forward with any suspension of the driver’s license.
After a supposed investigation, Burlington County claimed they found no wrongdoing on the part of the police department. It was apparent even then that the county wasn’t taking our concerns seriously, nor were officials interested in truly holding Bordentown Township police accountable. I decided to take the matter to the state and contacted the Office of the Attorney General, Division of Criminal Justice (which oversees all 21 counties in the state of New Jersey). I sent paperwork, including the deposed witness statements, and outlined the police department’s suspicious work and behavior.
Following their own alleged 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 handwritten statement — nor did they find any wrongdoing on the part of police. In December of 2005, I received a formal notice from John J. Dell’Aquilo, the deputy attorney general of the Prosecutors Supervision and Coordination Bureau 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.”
As if this entire ordeal weren’t enough, we were forced to attend many court hearings, during which we were treated in a manner that can only be described as atrocious. I was able to get a reporter from NBC Philadelphia to look into the case, and after one of these court dates, this investigative reporter had tears in her eyes as she spoke to my mother and I outside of the courthouse in Bordentown. To quote her: “They treated you guys like you were the criminals.” Unfortunately, her piece never aired.
The 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 but the prosecutor advocated against it, saying 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.
It’s fascinating how those who had such utter disregard for my dad’s life and for his well-being expected us to simply move on as if he didn’t matter. I suppose that’s because they also devalued our lives as well and treated us like second-class citizens. But moving on was no easy feat. In addition to the emotional anguish of the sudden loss of our beloved loved one, there were reverberations everywhere.
My mother lost her home as she couldn’t afford to keep up with the mortgage on her own. My younger siblings — who were only in high school when my dad was killed — lost a parent at a pivotal point in their lives and had to navigate graduation and college without him. My older sister was pregnant with her first child; that child and my other niece were robbed of the opportunity to ever know their grandfather. And as for me, I was just in the early stages of adulthood, working as a freelance journalist, and my quest for justice so consumed my time and mental state that I began falling behind on work, missed assignments, and some outlets eventually stopped working with me. At one point I literally had only $20 in my bank account and fell to the floor crying.
It’s a difficult thing to lose a parent, especially in such a catastrophic way. It’s all the more agonizing when there’s no real accountability and the authorities conduct themselves in a manner prevalent with an inherent culture of bias and corruption. We later pursued a civil suit against the driver which dragged on forever and eventually we settled for a pittance in order to avoid an even lengthier painful litigation process. I tried to find an attorney (searched from Brooklyn to the Jersey shore) that would file a civil suit against the police department, but nobody wanted to take on that mission impossible.
In the end, we all had to make peace with things and learn to accept the harsh reality that this adoring, selfless person was taken from our lives and treated as if he had no worth by many — including by those sworn to serve and protect. We also had to accept the painful fact that there would never really be any true justice for him. That’s a difficult pill to swallow, and if I’m truly honest, I’ve always felt a bit guilty that I didn’t do more; that I could have done something else to have the police department investigated or somehow show that they violated my dad’s civil rights. But proving racism in a court of law, or that a culture of racism exists among police, is one of the most difficult things to do — as the FBI themselves just learned.
In opening statements of the Nucera trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Lorber told the jury that officer Roohr first told then-Captain Pesce about the Nucera recordings he was gathering. Pesce testified that Roohr seemed shook up, uneasy, and worried after the alleged head-slamming incident from September 2016. These officers should have been able to take their concerns up the chain of command to the Burlington County Prosecutor’s office — the same office that I went to in 2005. But as Pesce himself testified, he “lacked all trust and confidence” in the office because of their history of refusing to act on complaints against Nucera.
Observing the Nucera trial so many years later was a strange bit of vindication that not many are afforded. It was surreal.
During the course of the trial, information came to light about a case involving a former officer who had resigned years earlier after he claimed he faced retaliation for filing a complaint against Nucera. Another officer told the FBI that Nucera had Burlington County prosecutor Bernardi, “in his pocket” (this was the same county prosecutor who oversaw my family’s complaints in 2005). In fact, Bernardi was the longest-serving county prosecutor in the state of New Jersey and only retired a short time after Nucera retired in 2017.
It was fascinating to sit in a federal courthouse and listen to all of this information and more come out nearly 15 years later. To confirm what we already knew but were unable to prove on our own. I attended the Nucera trial over those three weeks this fall because I wanted to see how this case would play out, and also to represent my dad who is longer here with us. In my long quest to do something about that police department, many (including attorneys) tried to tell me that it was a losing battle, a waste of time — or worse still — that perhaps I was being too emotional. Observing the Nucera trial so many years later was a strange bit of vindication that not many are afforded. It was surreal.
All across the country, victims have suffered from either blatant racism or a disregard for their well-being at the hands of police and they have no avenue to have their voices heard. What sort of recourse does a person really have? When you know there is wrongdoing involved, how can someone even get a semblance of justice when those hired to serve and protect are the ones causing or contributing to the problem? And who will listen? Even as a journalist, I was unable to get anyone to hear me.
When my father was killed, Nucera was deputy chief and in 2006, he became police chief. He was on the force for 34 years, moved up the ranks all the way to the top and only resigned once he learned of the FBI probe. He continued to collect his $8,800-a-month pension until March of this year when it was finally frozen pending the outcome of the case. He thrived on a police force where he openly spouted racist language, views, and hostile behavior. As chief (and a township administrator as well) he greatly shaped that force in every way from hiring, firing, culture, behavior, policing practices, funding, and more. It only makes sense that the entire department be examined now.
Nearly 15 years ago my dad died and I tried desperately to have the Bordentown Township Police Department investigated. Nobody took those concerns seriously enough to take substantive action then. Now federal authorities plan to retry their case against the former police chief. Their focus is solely on Nucera, but the entire force (where his son still works as a cop) needs to be taken over by the Department of Justice. Every single case he oversaw, every single officer he hired, every pertinent decision he ever made all needs federal oversight.
Unfortunately, that will likely not happen.
It took a whistleblower just to get us to this point — to the point where a former police chief was on trial for such serious charges. It’s only because the blue wall was penetrated that we’re here today. But it is truly remarkable that even with the full force of the federal government, 81 recordings, an officer working with the FBI for over a year and secretly recording, the testimony of several officers, and more, prosecutors were still unable to get a unanimous guilty verdict. How can we ever expect the average person with limited resources to be able to do anything?
During the Nucera trial, his defense attorney, Rocco Cipparone, repeatedly tried to argue (even from the opening) that the prosecution was “trying to turn criminal justice into social justice.” He said Nucera used “ugly language” and that it was “embarrassing,” but attempted to argue that Nucera never slammed the black teen’s head into a metal doorjamb (meaning the officers who testified that he did perjured themselves willingly).
But let’s put the alleged assault and this trial aside for a moment. Do we really believe that the words of law enforcement don’t matter? When you have a license to kill and the authority to oversee public safety, yes, even your words do and should matter because they undoubtedly influence actions. It’s why we need stronger scrutiny over who becomes an officer and who obtains such a position of power over others.
This summer we learned that over a dozen officers — including a sergeant — in Philadelphia were going to be fired because of racist and offensive social media posts that they reportedly made. Thanks to the Plain View Project, which identified 3,100 offensive or potentially offensive posts from 328 active-duty officers, the Philadelphia PD had to conduct its own internal investigation and clean house.
According to reports, 193 officers were found to have violated department policy, 148 faced “command level discipline,” and 15 officers were suspended with intent to dismiss. Out of those 15 officers, 11 resigned before being fired. The question everyone should be asking is why did it take an outside entity for this information to come to light? In fact, this isn’t just confined to Philadelphia. The Plain View Project says it has identified more than 5,000 hateful or racist social media posts and comments by more than 3,500 current and former police officers in eight jurisdictions since 2017 alone.
Why weren’t the backgrounds of these officers investigated more thoroughly before they were hired in the first place? This is the kind of scrutiny that police departments around the country should be facing. One cannot be in charge of public safety, and have authority over others when such biased views will inevitably lead to biased behavior — some of which may have deadly consequences.
This isn’t about “political correctness” or “policing free speech,” it’s about ensuring that those who will make decisions (some of which will be life and death decisions) and take actions that will impact people’s lives don’t possess bigoted views about different groups of people. It’s about whose life matters, who receives adequate care, and who is viewed as an equal human being and treated as such.
The tremendous work of groups like the Plain View Project helped bring about some change in Philadelphia, but what we need is movement at the federal level. Unfortunately, the small incremental changes that were taking place through the DOJ under an Obama Administration, like consent decrees with various police departments, were virtually halted under President Donald Trump. If we are to ever have true criminal justice reform, there must be federal standards.
Frank Nucera Jr.’s fate awaits. The FBI will have one more opportunity next year to prove that he harbored deep animosity towards African Americans and others. No matter the outcome, one thing is for certain: proving racism in a court of law and holding police accountable are two of the toughest things to do. It is what I experienced firsthand almost 15 years ago. And it appears that even when you are federal agents and prosecutors, it’s still nearly impossible.