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New Jersey Cop Sued Over Shooting Ranks First in His Department for Use of Force

Officer Sheehan Miles of the Trenton Police Department had 43 force encounters between 2012 and 2016, according to a new database.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Mihajlo Maricic/Getty Images

On the evening of Aug. 27, 2016, Alfred Toe, 34, was with his family attending a memorial celebration for a fellow member of Trenton’s Liberian community. Toe got into an argument with one of the people at the event and stormed off to his brother’s car to grab a gun, according to a combination of police and witness accounts. His brother, Constantine, saw him returning with the gun and confronted him, insisting he put back the weapon. In his attempt to get back the gun, it went off, shooting Constantine in the hand. Despite his injury, Constantine managed to disarm his brother. Then Sheehan Miles, an off-duty Trenton police officer, who happened to be at the event, came onto the scene.

What happened next is contested.

Local prosecutors said Miles was holding the brother’s gun in one hand and his own in his other, when Toe attempted to “gain control” of one of the weapons. In the ensuing struggle, they said, Toe “was shot once in the chest” and later pronounced dead at the hospital.

But, in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in August, Toe’s family claims that Officer Miles had no physical contact with Toe before shooting him.

Constantine had gotten his brother “under control,” they said, and was trying to defuse the situation when Officer Miles approached. The family alleges that the officer, wearing plainclothes, came onto the scene and got Constantine on the ground lying face down, handcuffing him and placing him under arrest. Miles, the lawsuit claims, didn’t identify himself as a police officer. Toe called out to him several times, yelling, “Get off my brother.” Miles started to say “Stand back” and suddenly pulled the trigger.

Miles, cleared by county prosecutors and the state attorney general’s office, remains in the department.

The Toe family’s lawsuit against the officer alleges he used excessive force against Toe. Newly published data suggest their concerns may not be isolated.

Miles is ranked number one in the Trenton Police Department for use-of-force incidents between 2012 and 2016, according to a New Jersey police use-of-force database, recently created by NJ Advance Media, based on information from the Trenton police.

Between 2012 and 2016, Miles was involved in 43 use-of-force incidents, more than seven times the departmental average per officer during that period.

In those four years, according to the outlet’s analysis of police use-of-force forms, Miles was involved in 43 use-of-force incidents, more than seven times the departmental average per officer during that period. Of his incidents, 11 included open-handed or closed-fist strikes, nine involved deployments of pepper spray, and four included baton strikes, though those numbers were below departmental averages.

The data also show that 81 percent of the people subjected to Miles’s forceful encounters were Black. In most cases, the civilians were said to have “resisted police officer control”; in six, they were said to have attacked the officer, who is also Black. Seven percent of those encounters left Miles injured, while roughly 25 percent left the civilians injured.

Patrick Whalen, the attorney suing the Trenton Police Department on behalf of the Toe family, told The Appeal that such data could aid in the lawsuit.

In an email, Brooks DiDonato, a lawyer representing Miles and the police department, declined to address questions about Miles’s use-of-force incidents and the Toe shooting. In a response filed in court, DiDonato denied several of the family’s allegations, including the claims that Miles did not identify himself as a police officer and that the two had no physical contact.

The Trenton Police Department has stood behind Officer Miles. The department acknowledged his role in the shooting in May 2017, nearly a year after the incident, when it awarded Miles with the department’s highest honor, the commendation of valor. During the ceremony, Capt. Anthony Pasqua described Miles’s scuffle with Toe and commended his “alert actions,” noting they are “in line with the department’s traditions.” The department did not answer questions about the Toe family’s lawsuit or its commendation of Miles.

In 2016, seven of the 10 Trenton officers who had the most incidents between 2012 and 2016 received departmental awards.

Miles is far from the only officer to be honored by the Trenton Police Department despite frequent use-of-force encounters. In 2016, seven of the 10 Trenton officers who had the most incidents between 2012 and 2016 received departmental awards.

Seventeen-year department veteran Timothy Long, ranked number seven with 20 use-of-force incidents between 2012 and 2016, has been named in at least four federal lawsuits, two of which were dismissed while the other two resulted in payouts.

Eliezer Ramos, ranked number nine with 19 use-of-force incidents, was caught on camera in 2016 appearing to instruct a fellow officer to lie about discovering a gun, according to footage obtained this year by The Trentonian.

The Trenton Police Department did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment about Long and Ramos.

Several of the city’s officers are under investigation by the FBI for other incidents involving excessive force.