Westfield Police Officer Cleared Of Bias Charges

By KATIE MOEN
For Union County HAWK

WESTFIELD — A Westfield police officer accused of racial profiling by two of his superior officers has been cleared of any alleged wrongdoing through an Internal Affairs investigation. Pending litigation against the department, however, could still point to larger, more systemic cultural issues at play.

The 130-page investigation report, completed in January of this year and obtained through an Open Public Records Act request, details accusations levied against Officer Christopher Forcenito on the night of January 29, 2021. On the night in question, Officer Forcenito allegedly ticketed a Black motorist for driving with an expired license after pulling him over for speeding and failing to keep right. Later in the same shift, he allowed a White, male motorist to go free with a warning after allegedly pulling him over for traveling 65 mph in a 25-mph zone. His actions were subsequently called into question by Sergeant Preston Freeman, the department’s highest-ranking African-American officer, and Lieutenant Nicole Stivale, Westfield’s highest-ranking female officer. According to the investigation, Lt. Stivale allegedly told Ofc. Forcenito to draft a report detailing why he chose not to issue a summons for the more egregious of the two traffic violations. When Ofc. Forcenito allegedly refused to do so, Sgt. Freeman relieved Ofc. Forcenito of duty for being insubordinate.

The following day, both Lt. Stivale and Sgt. Freeman requested that Ofc. Forcenito remain on suspension pending the results of an Internal Affairs investigation into his alleged violation of the Westfield Police Department’s Bias-Based Policing Standard Operating Procedure. According to the investigation report, drafted by Detective Lieutenant Jason Carter, however, “[the officers] were asked to present any documentation or evidence they had to substantiate the claim at the time,” but neither was able to comply. The report goes on to indicate that “Chief [Christopher] Battiloro considered the accusations levied by the supervisors, their lack of any supporting documentation, and their failure to follow [standard operating procedure] regarding immediate suspensions when he made the determination to immediately reinstate Officer Forcenito.” Shortly thereafter, arrangements were made to move Ofc. Forcenito out from under the supervision of the other two officers.

The report indicates that Officer Forcenito was assigned to the shift supervised by Lt. Stivale and Sgt. Freeman from January 13, 2021 to January 29, 2021. During this time, he made 11 traffic stops consisting of six White drivers, three Black drivers and two Asian drivers.

The investigation also includes a detailed list of Ofc. Forcenito’s stops for a three-year period ranging from 2017 to 2019.

“[Ofc. Forcenito’s] traffic stops for each year exceeded those of the other officers assigned to his shift,” Det. Lt. Carter said in the report. “However, I observed no statistical information from this data that would lead me to believe Officer Forcenito was conducting traffic stops based on the race of the operators. Additionally, there was no data that I observed that suggests [he] was issuing motor vehicle summonses to minority drivers at a rate higher than that of White non-Hispanic drivers or any other minority class.”

The report also includes the largely-redacted testimony of 19 witnesses who either worked with Ofc. Forcenito or were present when he was suspended, many of whom indicated a history of animosity between Ofc. Forcenito and Sgt. Freeman dating back to before Sgt. Freeman was promoted.

“Sergeant Freeman does indicate in his statement that he believes Officer Forcenito has a problem with minorities in general,” Det. Lt. Carter writes. “However, he has never made a formal report of these concerns.”

The report goes on to note that on January 13, 2021, Sgt. Freeman and Lt. Stivale began to tell officers under their supervision that they should only be making stops for egregious violations.

“It’s this investigator’s belief that this occurred because the supervisors had a bias toward Officer Forcenito as a result or in part due to the poor relationship and history between Freeman and Forcenito,” Det. Lt. Carter said in his report, adding that, “it is apparently common knowledge as confirmed by many witnesses interviewed that officers assigned to the shift supervised by these supervisors know that proactivity [as was evident in Ofc. Forcenito’s history] is highly discouraged.”

Ultimately, Det. Lt. Carter concluded in his report that the three allegations levied against Ofc. Forcenito [two counts of insubordination and one count of Bias-Based Policing] were all unfounded.

However, he adds, “throughout the course of this investigation it has been clearly established that Sergeant Freeman failed to adhere to the Internal Affairs Standard Operating Procedure when he issued the suspension of Officer Forcenito. It’s also this investigator’s belief that…the poor relationship between Freeman and Forcenito significantly contributed to the manner in which this situation escalated.” Det. Lt. Carter also notes that both Sgt. Freeman and Lt. Stivale failed to provide adequate documentation or any proper oversight throughout the series of events that led to Ofc. Forcenito’s temporary suspension.

Later, in March of this year, the two supervisors, both of whom ultimately faced disciplinary actions as a result of the investigation, filed suit against both the Town of Westfield and its police department alleging a history of discrimination and retaliation.

While the suit primarily hinges on claims of retaliatory behavior in relation to the Internal Affairs investigation, both Lt. Stivale and Sgt. Freeman also allege that the department and its higher-ups have repeatedly engaged in biased practices like failing to promote officers of color and creating a hostile environment for women.

Litigation is still pending.

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