NJ cop was hired after stabbing — kept job after new rape, violence charges
ATLANTIC CITY — If past is prologue, the Atlantic City Police Department should have seen this coming, according to a federal lawsuit accusing a police officer of brutality.
Franco Sydnor’s criminal record included a charge of stabbing a man four times in his stomach, chest and back. But that wasn’t enough to keep him from getting a job as a city police officer.
And what he's been accused of since hasn't been enough for him to lose his job, either.
In the nearly 19 years of his career, Sydnor has been further accused of threatening to behead a lover’s husband, was the subject of at least 21 complaints and six lawsuits dealing mostly with excessive violence, was accused of sexually assaulting a fellow female officer, and internal investigators determined that he had been credibly accused of raping a woman while in uniform.
But he was never charged with a crime, never underwent a fitness-for-duty evaluation, never ordered to get remedial training, never fired and was never asked to resign, according to a lawsuit by man who says Sydnor clobbered his head with a baton for no reason in 2012.
The lawsuit by Anthony Moore describes the Police Department’s internal investigations as a “sham” and faults the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office for never bringing charges against a troubled officer whose violent history predates his employment.
The police department has faced similar accusations by other people.
Last month, a jury awarded a $300,000 judgment against Atlantic City in a lawsuit filed by a man who was arrested 2013. John Stadler said officers beat him and sicced a police dog on him after he had been handcuffed.
Stadler’s attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, also represents Moore, who filed his lawsuit in 2014 and is set to go to trial just as the new state attorney general is trying to strengthen police-community relations.
How did he get hired?
Sydnor was never convicted of the aggravated assault charge for stabbing his wife’s ex-lover in 1997. Instead, he agreed to plead guilty to a fourth-degree weapons offense.
His record also included a December 2002 charge of making terrorist threats after offering to kill a lover’s husband, according to court filings in the Moore lawsuit. Emails from Sydnor to the woman suggested that the man, who was in jail, would show up decapitated somewhere, the lawsuit says. The charges were dismissed.
The fact that the city hired Sydnor despite his record baffled a police expert and an attorney specializing in public employment law who spoke with New Jersey 101.5.
A conviction for any kind of indictable offense is an automatic disqualifier for State Police recruits and many municipal police departments who use the State Police rules as guidance.
Even an arrest that did not result in a conviction could be enough to cost a recruit a job, says Richard Rivera, a former New Jersey police officer and an expert on internal police investigations.
“Obviously, you want those individuals with the best character and the least amount of baggage,” he said Wednesday. “This individual was accused of serious crimes. I’ve seen police candidates get rejected for parking tickets.”
Katherine O’Brien, a South Jersey attorney specializing in criminal expungements for people seeking employment, says police departments can still question candidates about the circumstances of an arrest even if it did not result in a conviction.
“They certainly should take those into consideration,” she said. “It’s like any other job: Even if something is not going to be an automatic disqualifier, can they still weigh it? Yes.”
Moore's attorney says that even if the criminal charges didn't disqualify Sydnor, they "should have prompted the city to pay close attention to him."
Sydnor has denied any wrongdoing and his attorney is trying to convince a federal judge to keep internal affairs investigations records off limits during trial because none of the charges were upheld.
The city, meanwhile, also denies wrongdoing and was successful this week in getting the judge to split the trial into two parts to separately determine the liability of the city and Sydnor, who is being accused in the Moore lawsuit of Fourth Amendment violations and assault and battery. Moore’s attorney had opposed splitting the trial because she believes Sydnor’s conduct is related to how the city handled it.
“Investigators cover up officer misconduct rather than conduct meaningful and objective investigations,” Bonjean said in a court filing, adding that investigators never bothered to interview Sydnor in person and did not question him about discrepancies between his statements and what video footage demonstrated in a multitude of complaints against him.
The Moore lawsuit stems from his brother's October 2012 bachelor party at Bally’s Casino. His brother, who was drunk, was asked to leave the casino. The lawsuit says Sydnor was being aggressive by baiting and taunting a group of drunk patrons.
At one point, Moore’s brother shoves Sydnor. Moore’s brother is quickly detained by other security, but Sydnor pushes a woman to the ground to go after Moore, “who had retreated […] and was standing passively in a non-threatening posture,” according to his lawsuit.
The lawsuit says Sydnor shoved Moore to the floor and struck him three times with a baton and kicked him.
After the lawsuit was filed, Sydnor testified in a deposition that he did not hit Moore with a baton but then said that he had not intended to hit him.
“Sydnor’s testimony on this matter is nothing short of a bald-faced lie,” Bonjean said in a legal filing.
A woman accused Sydnor of forcing her to perform oral sex on him at her apartment. She and a man who witnessed the assault reported this to the Atlantic City Police Department, according to the lawsuit.
Sydnor told department investigators that he had stopped both people on the street and offered to go to the woman's apartment in order to provide her "counseling" for drug abuse, according to the lawsuit's summary of the internal affairs file.
An internal investigator found the accounts of the woman and witness credible, according to the lawsuit, but the prosecutor declined to bring charges and the department declined to sustain a departmental charge of sexual assault because the department's investigator believed there was not enough proof even though the standard for evidence in a workplace disciplinary matter is far less than in a criminal trial.
Moore's attorney says the department "routinely treats criminal allegations as mere administrative complaints."
“This serious incident should have prompted Sydnor’s command staff to subject him to additional monitoring. ACPD’s failure to respond in any meaningful way to a woman’s credible allegations that she was raped by an on-duty officer in uniform is unconscionable and compelling evidence of ‘deliberate indifference,'" Bonjean said in a legal filing.
Fellow officer accuses him
The rape allegation was not the only accusation of sexual misconduct against Sydnor. A fellow female officer says he groped her and then frightened her by driving her to a strange location. While nothing more happened, the officer said she was scared to report what happened because she feared harassment, the lawsuit says. Another female officer, however, reported what happened on her colleague's behalf.
The lawsuit says the prosecutor refused to press charges and the department treated the accusation like a minor administrative violation.
Pattern of ‘full-out lies’
Sydnor was investigated for a December 2008 shoplifting arrest in which he claims the suspect punched him in the chest. In fact, a video shows Sydnor hitting the woman’s face and knocking her to the ground, the Moore lawsuit says. The woman later suffered a “serious beating” while in custody, the lawsuit says.
Bonjean argues that this is part of Sydnor’s pattern.
“Sydnor routinely minimizes or full-out lies about the level of force he uses when dealing with suspects, and routinely exaggerates the level of resistance a subject shows to justify his use of force,” she said in a court filing.
— In May 2010, Sydnor responded to a hotel in which a patron was objecting to the bill. The lawsuit says Sydnor escalated the situation by picking up the man in a bear hug and slamming him to the ground. In his police report, however, Sydnor says the man is the one who picked up Sydnor.
— In July 2006, he and two other cops were dispatched to Borgata to escort a patron off the property. Sydnor claimed he dropped off the man at a bus station but the man was found unconscious with a head injury in the parking lot of an Applebee’s. An internal affairs investigation found that he had used excessive force and that he had lied, but he faced no consequences, the lawsuit says.
— Sydnor was investigated for pushing a woman to the ground, holding her throat and threatening to "f--k' her up, the lawsuit says. The woman had been trying to help her elderly mother off the ground at a casino, the lawsuit says. Sydnor denied injuring the woman, who provided photographs of her injuries.
— While responding to a fight at Tropicana, Sydnor punched a man in the face, handcuffed him and threw him into a wishing well, the lawsuit says. Sydnor told internal investigators that the man's injuries were accidental.
The attorney general's guidelines for police internal affairs says that departments should adopt an early warning system "to identify any pattern or practice by any member of the agency that warrants intervention or remediation before it develops into a glaring problem."
Such a pattern can be from arrests and accusations, regardless of outcome.
Moore's attorney says the early warning system should have been triggered several times between 2006 and 2014, during which Sydnor faced internal affairs complaints at least three times a year and was the subject of a "disproportionate number" of civil rights lawsuits.
Since Moore filed his lawsuit, police departments across the country have faced greater scrutiny of their use of force and perceived bias. In recent months, state and federal prosecutors have charged numerous New Jersey officers with misconduct — and released detailed statements about the charges to the public. In many of those cases, there was eyewitness video or video from a police body or dash cameras, which have increasingly been implemented by police departments.
Just this year:
— In Piscataway, an officer was charged with punching a handcuffed man in his car.
— In Gloucester Township, an officer was charged with slapping a handcuffed teen girl.
— In Shrewsbury, an officer was charged in a series of domestic violence incidents.
— In Jersey City, two officers were charged with roughing up a Domino's manager while another cop was charged with running over a suspect with his car. Hudson County prosecutors also charged four Jersey City cops with attempted murder or aggravated assault for pummeling an innocent man last year while a former police chief and 10 other cops are facing charges of ripping off the city.
Rivera, who has long criticized the way police departments investigate misconduct by fellow officers, attributes the rash of recent charges against cops to officials who "are being shamed into accountability."
"I think what's changed is the public access to police cases and police information," he said. "The public has more access to these records and are holding police officers accountable. County prosecutors and the police departments should do the same."