Atlantic City Police Officer Charged with Civil Rights and Other Offenses
CAMDEN, N.J. - A federal grand jury has indicted an Atlantic City police officer for multiple offenses arising from an assault outside the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in June 2013, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced.
In an indictment returned Oct. 10, 2018, and unsealed today, Sterling Wheaten, 34, of Mays Landing, New Jersey, was charged with one count of violating an individual’s civil rights and one count of falsifying a record for submitting a false police report about the assault. He made his initial appearance today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider in Camden federal court and was released on $50,000 unsecured bond.
According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court:
On June 15, 2013, Wheaten was working in his official capacity as an Atlantic City Police Department (ACPD) officer with his K-9 partner. That day, four ACPD officers encountered the victim in the area of the Tropicana. After the victim was told to leave the area, the victim walked across Morris Avenue and began yelling threats and obscenities at the police officers. After several minutes, ACPD Officer #1 ran across the street toward him to arrest him.
While ACPD Officer #1 and other officers attempted to grab the victim, the victim pulled away and grabbed ACPD Officer #1 around the waist as the victim was taken to the ground. ACPD Officer #1 fell to the ground with the victim on top of him. Three ACPD Officers, Officers #2 through #4, pulled the victim from on top of ACPD Officer #1. The four officers then delivered knee strikes to the victim’s shoulder and back, punches to the victim’s back, and baton strikes to the victim’s back and legs. Eventually, ACPD Officer #5 arrived and delivered two knee strikes to the victim before successfully handcuffing the victim’s left hand.
During the struggle, which lasted less than two minutes, ACPD Officers radioed for the assistance of a K-9 Officer. Wheaten responded to the call. When he arrived, the victim was laying on his stomach with ACPD Officer #1 kneeling on the victim’s head/neck area and several ACPD Officers were pressing on the victim’s back and legs.
Wheaten immediately took his dog out of the vehicle and ran directly at the victim and the five ACPD Officers. ACPD Officer #5 got off of the victim while still holding the handcuff, which caused the victim’s chest to be exposed to the dog. Without issuing a warning that he would deploy the dog, or allowing the victim a chance to surrender, Wheaten released the dog, and the dog bit the victim in the chest.
The victim pushed the dog off of his chest and rolled to his side. The dog bit the victim on the back of his neck. Wheaten did not immediately remove the dog from the back of the victim’s neck, but instead told the dog to “hold” on the victim’s neck. During his training at the K-9 Academy, Wheaten was trained that the only type of K-9 apprehension that has resulted in the death of a suspect occurred when a K-9 bit a suspect on his neck, and that even though the K-9 was immediately recalled and medical care given, the suspect died.
While the dog was biting the back of the victim’s neck, Wheaten punched the victim twice in the shoulder/neck area. Eventually, the victim was handcuffed and the dog was placed into the police vehicle. ACPD Officer #6 administered first aid to the victim’s head and neck until paramedics arrived. The victim was taken to AtlanticCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City in police custody, where he was treated for dog bites to his head, neck and chest.
After the victim was transported to the hospital, Wheaten and ACPD Officers #1 through #5, returned to the police station to prepare their reports. Prior to writing the reports, ACPD Officer #1 obtained Tropicana’s surveillance video of the assault. Wheaten met with ACPD Officers #1 through #4 and they watched the security video from the Tropicana before preparing their police reports.
To justify his actions against the victim, Wheaten prepared and submitted false and fraudulent police reports. He wrote that the victim was “fighting my K9 partner,” “[struck] my partner with his right hand,” “a further violent struggle ensued,” and, in an effort to falsely justify the utilization of the K-9, that the “suspect violently assaulted uniformed law enforcement officer[s] with hands and fists . . . .” As part of the report, Wheaten, in an effort to falsely justify the closed fist punches to the victim, falsely stated that he feared that the victim “was going to get up and retrieve his weapon to injure us or flee the area endangering the public.” As part of the report, Wheaten falsely stated that he provided first aid to the victim’s wound until the ambulance/EMT arrived.
The violation of civil rights count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The false records count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. The maximum fine for each of the charges is $250,000.
U.S. Attorney Carpenito credited special agents of the FBI, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Gregory W. Ehrie in Newark, with the investigation leading to today’s arrest.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason M. Richardson of the U.S. Attorney's Office Criminal Division in Camden in the criminal case.
The charges and accusations in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.