NAACP alleges South Jersey police officer used excessive force on teen girl

The Camden County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating allegations that a Gloucester City police officer used excessive force against a teenage girl who was slammed to the ground in February and arrested.

Along with claims of excessive force, harassment, unlawful arrest, and assault, a complaint filed by the Camden County East Branch of the NAACP alleges that the girl’s civil rights were violated during the encounter with Officer Keith Wall.

The officer “utterly mishandled the situation,”  NAACP president Lloyd D. Henderson said this week. The mother of the teenager and a younger son lodged the complaint with the civil rights group and a second complaint with the police department.

Gloucester City Police Chief Brian Morrell acknowledged that the department had received a complaint and that an internal investigation had been launched into the Feb. 24 incident. He declined other comment, citing the pending investigation and criminal charges against the teenager.

The incident is said to have occurred outside Cold Spring Elementary School following an intramural basketball game between players from Lawnside and Gloucester City. The game was interrupted after a Lawnside player allegedly struck a referee.

The incident involving Wall was recorded by the officer’s body camera, which was activated shortly after his arrival at the scene. Gloucester City equipped its entire force with body cameras in 2015.

“We will review all the footage. It’s all been submitted,” Morrell said.

Wall did not respond to a message seeking comment. A representative with the Police Benevolent Association declined to comment.

The video shows the officer walking briskly toward a crowd that had gathered outside the school. The girl was engaged in a verbal altercation with a man, according to her mother. Yelling can be heard on the video.  According to the girl’s mother, racial slurs were hurled during the melee. At one point, someone says, “Shut up.” And someone responds, “No, you shut up.” 

It is unclear from the video who made the comments. Henderson believes the officer mistakenly believed they were aimed at him.

Wall responds by saying, “Here’s what I am going to do.” He is seen on the video grabbing the girl, who was being held by her mother. The teen ends up on the ground, with Wall clutching her hair. Also knocked to the ground was her brother, who had attempted to intervene. Several officers helped arrest the girl and boy.

“My kids didn’t do anything wrong,” their mother, Amanda Nelson, 37, said Wednesday. “I was shocked.”

After the incident, a body camera worn by another officer  showed Wall tending to a wound on his forehead. It was unclear when or how Wall had been injured. He could be heard saying that someone’s ring might have caused the gash.

The teenager and her brother, 12, were charged with aggravated assault on a police officer and resisting arrest. The Inquirer is withholding their names because of their ages. Both are free pending trials.

Nelson, who said she refused to accept a plea deal for her children, said she was initially reluctant to file a complaint against the officer. She said she feared repercussions against her children, but then in late April, she filed the complaints.

Alex McVeigh, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, said the complaint  filed by Nelson would be investigated, but declined further comment on the allegation.

“Our office is committed to improving the delivery of police services to all citizens and assuring those citizens that complaints of police misconduct are properly addressed,” McVeigh said in a statement.

In 2016, two complaints alleging excessive force were filed against the Gloucester City Police Department, according to a report by the county Prosecutor’s Office special prosecutions unit/internal affairs. They can be found at:   http://www.cityofgloucester.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Inter-Summary-Report-2016.pdf

According to the report, one was resolved, and the other is pending.

Wall, a 17-year veteran of the department, remains on active duty, Morrell said. An internal investigation is underway to determine whether any administrative charges should be filed, he said.

“No evidence has been brought to my attention that would warrant placing the officer on any type of modified assignment or administrative leave,” Morrell said Friday. “At this time, we have an allegation made with no evidence brought forth to support the allegation.”

Henderson alleges that race may have been a factor in how the incident was handled. The 29-member police department is all-white. The teenage girl and her brother are biracial.

“He initiated and aggravated the situation,” Henderson said of the officer.