N.J. officer indicted on misconduct charges in man's death during 2020 arrest

"This officer resorted to using pepper spray during a confrontation with a civilian in a manner that was unnecessary and contrary to his training," AG Matthew Platkin said


By S.P. Sullivan
nj.com

TRENTON, N.J. — A Trenton Police officer has been indicted on a criminal charge for pepper-spraying a 64-year-old man who died 18 days after a confrontation with police outside his home in 2020, state prosecutors said Wednesday.

Officer Nicholas Piotrowski used excessive force while trying to subdue Joseph Ahr Sr., who was arguing with several officers on his porch and resisted their efforts to cuff him, state Attorney General Matthew Platkin said.

“Police officers are required to be measured in their use of force in every encounter, even under challenging conditions,” Platkin said.

“This officer resorted to using pepper spray during a confrontation with a civilian in a manner that was unnecessary and contrary to his training, mishandling a situation that could have concluded so much differently,” he said.

The indictment — a single count of official misconduct — marks a rare case in which a New Jersey police officer is facing criminal liability stemming from a death in custody. In this case, however, the grand jury declined to bring more serious charges “directly related” to Ahr’s death weeks later.

The officer’s attorney, Stuart Alterman, said Piotrowski was innocent and “conducted himself not only appropriately, but pursuant to his training by the Trenton Police Department.”

Ahr’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming his treatment by police caused injuries that directly led to his death after weeks in an intensive care unit. One of their attorneys, Robin Lord, said Wednesday the family was “one step closer to justice” but disappointed that other responding officers were not also charged.

Piotrowski was one of nine officers at the scene during the July 6, 2020, incident, which began when Ahr’s namesake son called 911 over a domestic dispute in which the father was not involved, according to authorities and the family’s civil complaint.

When officers arrived, the elder Ahr answered the door and refused them entry, demanding to see a warrant, according to video footage made public last July by the state Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, which investigates all deaths involving law enforcement.

After several minutes of arguing, a supervisor ordered officers to arrest Ahr, at which point several of them brought down Ahr on the porch steps. Police body camera footage shows Ahr struggling and exclaiming “I can’t breath! For real!” as officers pinned his arms behind his back.

State prosecutors now say Piotrowski “struck Mr. Ahr, Sr. and deployed pepper spray at close range directly in his face on multiple occasions” in violation of New Jersey’s use of force policies.

After he was cuffed, the video shows, Ahr told officers he had only one working lung and struggled to catch his breath. A sergeant who had responded to the scene told Ahr they were going to take him to the hospital.

“It’s fine, you’re fine, it’s just a little bit of mace,” the sergeant told Ahr.

Ahr died July 24, 2020.

A medical examiner determined his cause of death was “acute respiratory failure following the use of pepper spray during arrest of an individual with chronic pulmonary disease and COVID-19.”

The manner of death was listed as a homicide — though that terminology indicates only that a person’s death was caused or contributed to by another person, not whether or such actions were illegal, according to the Attorney General’s office.

Thomas Eicher, the head of the OPIA, said state law and AG guidelines demand officers only use “reasonable and necessary” force during an arrest.

“The grand jury found that Officer Piotrowski should be indicted for official misconduct because his force did not meet that basic standard,” he said Wednesday.

Piotrowski had been working since the incident but was suspended without pay immediately after the indictment was released Tuesday, his attorney said. Trenton Police Director Steve Wilson did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Alterman, the officer’s attorney, said the video footage made clear that Piotrowski used the pepper spray only briefly to subdue “a very non-compliant and argumentative individual.”

“He didn’t just take the spray and continually spray him for a series of minutes for no reason at all,” Alterman said, adding his client was “utilizing pepper spray that was he was trained to use (and) authorized to use.”

Joseph Ahr Sr. had a large family and was known by his children as Ugg Mugg and friends called him Mookie or Itzy, his obituary said.

He worked for Amtrak for over 20 years in New York City, and loved cooking out, fishing with his brother Charlie and watching sports, his obituary noted. He rooted for the Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Flyers and the Baltimore Orioles.

Lord, his family’s attorney, said the fact that none of the officers were directly charged with his death was “bullshit.”

“The man had one lung, told them he couldn’t breathe,” she said. “They pepper sprayed him on stairs. The video is just heartbreaking.”

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