Bridgeton, NJ — A woman who filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Bridgeton, New Jersey Police Department was apparently targeted by the officer who is the central defendant in that suit — and the result was a replay of the incident that precipitated the lawsuit.
On March 31 of this year, Marella Lawson was dragged from her car by a scrum of Bridgeton police officers, pepper-sprayed, had her already-crippled right shoulder injured as her arms were wrenched behind her back, and thrown face-down to the pavement. Because the assailants were police officers, Lawson has been charged with two misdemeanors — resisting arrest and harassment – after initially being charged with felonies.
Lawson, who was pulled over on suspicion of driving with a suspended license, recognized the officer who conducted the traffic stop as Bridgeton Patrol Officer Shane Sawyers, the lead defendant in her ongoing civil rights lawsuit. As she explained in a recent interview with the Philadelphia Fox affiliate, Lawson was afraid to roll down her window and interact with Sawyers because of his behavior during an April 2013 arrest in her home, and because of his “aggressive” behavior during the traffic stop nearly two years later.
A dashcam video provided to Fox 29 shows a visibly agitated Officer Sawyers screaming at Lawson to “Open the car,” eventually using his baton to punctuate his repeated demands. After crossing to the rear passenger side of Lawson’s orange Dodge Neon, Sawyers radios a supervisor for permission to go “Code 9.”
“Take your steps and do what you got to do,” his supervisor responds.
While Sawyers is communicating with his supervisor, Lawson makes a frantic 911 call to request the intervention of a state trooper: “Sir, he is trying to break my window,” Lawson pleads with the emergency dispatcher. “He is trying to break my window.”
As several other officers arrive, Sawyers shatters a window, opens the door, and begins to struggle with the frantic woman.
“You already beat me up before!” Lawson protests as Sawyers chants the refrain favored by both rapists and hyper-aggressive cops: “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!”
A second officer joins in the assault, dragging and eventually pepper-spraying Lawson as she screams, “He’s hitting me! He’s hitting me!”
Once removed from the vehicle, Lawson is again ordered to “stop resisting” and place her hands behind her back. She repeatedly explains that “my arm is messed up” because her shoulder is “frozen” from complications of diabetes.
Heedless, the officer continues to demand that Lawson “stop resisting.”
“I’m not resisting, sir,” Lawson plaintively replies.
“You are – put your hands behind your back, now!” insists the officer.
“They won’t go behind me,” she reiterates. “I’ve got a frozen shoulder.”
At this point, Sawyers snaps, “You know what – take her down” – and three officers throw the traumatized woman to the pavement.
Asked for reaction to the newly released video, Mayor Albert B. Kelly described the incident as “nothing to be proud of,” while tentatively defending Sawyers’ behavior.
“The officer was doing what he felt he was supposed to do,” Mayor Kelly told Fox 29 News.
Predictably, the officers have been cleared of potential criminal charges. Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari, who says an internal affairs probe is underway, has ordered his officers not to speak with the media.
Based on the facts outlined in Lawson’s lawsuit, it is clear Sawyers was aware of her health conditions, including her “frozen shoulder,” because he had previously injured it.
The lawsuit recounts that on April 20, 2013, Shane Sawyers and his partner, Officer Robert Robbins, arrived at Lawson’s home to charge her with contempt for allegedly violating a no contact order. At the time, Lawson was eating dinner. Like many people suffering from diabetes, Lawson has to be careful not to miss regularly scheduled meals, and she asked that she be allowed to finish before going to the police station.
Sawyers “stated he believed Plaintiff ate enough, and instructed Defendant Robbins to take Plaintiff’s plate away,” continues the lawsuit’s narrative. As Lawson reached to get some orange juice, Sawyers “grabbed her by the arm and bent it behind her back.” Screaming in pain, Sawyers told her that “her arm could not bend backwards, due to a frozen shoulder injury.”
In an uncanny foreshadowing of what would happen on March 31 of this year, Robbins told Lawson that “he was arresting her for resisting arrest” as he and Sawyers gang-tackled the woman to the floor.
Rather than resisting, Lawson tried to cooperate.
“While on the floor, as [Lawson] begged [the] officers to stop abusing her, she locked her two hands in front of her body, asking Defendant Robbins to cuff her arms in front of her body, instead of behind her body, due to her injury,” the lawsuit explains. “Instead of cuffing [Lawson] … Sawyers punched her in the face and kicked her. While still on the floor … Robbins held Plaintiff by her legs as Sawyers pulled her hair and banged her head against the floor.”
Once again prefiguring the events of March 31, Robbins compounded the physical beating by macing Lawson in “her face, eyes, mouth, nose, in her hair, and down her neck.” As a result of the assault, Lawson suffered injuries to both her neck and shoulder, in addition to the lasting psychological trauma attendant to being physically abused and humiliated in her home by two armed state functionaries who treated her like a violent convict rather than as a citizen with rights they were required to respect.
Given their previous history, it should not be surprising that Lawson was reluctant to deal with Sawyers. Was Sawyers targeting her, perhaps as retaliation for her civil rights complaint?
“Whether he targeted her or not, he didn’t give her any opportunity … to be safe,” observes attorney Greg Zeff, who is representing Lawson in the lawsuit. At the time of the traffic stop, Sawyers had access to a detailed dossier on Lawson.
Bridgeton (population circa 25,000) is one of several cities in New Jersey burdened with a police department whose patrol vehicles are equipped with Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) scanners. Through those devices, which were purchased with grants from the Department of Homeland Security, each patrol car is integrated into a seamless, comprehensive, real-time surveillance network that subjects all motorists — whatever their behavior or criminal history — to constant scrutiny.
The ALPR devices scan the plates of all vehicles in the vicinity, capturing images that are “stored first in the [patrol] car and then in a database at the county 911 center on Bridgeton Avenue in Deerfield,” reported The News of Cumberland County on September 8, 2011. The database then provides the officer with licensing, registration, and insurance information on the driver. “Just because the cameras catch a car does not mean an officer will automatically pull it over, and the decisions of whether to issue or not issue a ticket, or to pursue or not pursue a vehicle, ultimately come down to the individual officers,” noted the report.
Officer Sawyers knew that Lawson was driving the Orange Dodge Neon. The decision to conduct the stop was discretionary. As the defendant in Lawson’s civil rights lawsuit, Sawyers had a personal conflict that should have prompted him to hand off the matter to a different officer – assuming that a traffic stop was appropriate. An ethical peace officer would have recognized the potential for escalation and taken measures to prevent it. Instead, Sawyers actively pursued the confrontation, which led to a reprise of the behavior that led to the lawsuit in the first place.
Lawson’s lawsuit has been amended to include the assault that took place on March 31st – and for trying to avoid the confrontation Sawyers arranged, she has been charged with “harassing” an officer whose behavior could reasonably be construed as a form of federally subsidized cyber-stalking.