Suspended Maplewood police chief facing bias lawsuit over pit bull attack
MAPLEWOOD — Before last month's suspension of the police chief over a racially charged incident from a year ago, the top cop was already the target of a lawsuit alleging he discriminated against a young black man in a separate incident.
The lawsuit comes three years after police arrested Daniel Exantus on charges that he used his pit bull to attack Police Chief Robert Cimino during a pre-dawn encounter outside Exantus' home.
A jury later found Exantus not guilty on all the charges.
Brooke Barnett, an attorney representing 26-year-old Exantus, said the lawsuit is moving forward after a judge denied the township's efforts to have it dismissed.
The lawsuit proceeds after Cimino and Capt. Joshua Cummins were suspended for their roles in an incident on July 5, 2016, when officers were directed to move crowds of mostly black teens to neighboring Irvington. Officials last month said many of the teens lived in Maplewood and South Orange, which have higher percentage of white residents than Irvington. Officials also say police used excessive force. Six other officers have already been disciplined for their conduct connected to the 2016 incident.
Barnett said the lawsuit is even more relevant in light of the recent events.
"They've been very, very aggressive with their defense," she said. "Obviously they stand in a bit of a different position now that the (new) story has dropped."
New Jersey 101.5 obtained a copy of the police report, which offers a different account of what happened during an investigation into a shooting in which Exantus' brother was injured. Exantus was not arrested that evening.
According to Exantus' lawsuit, the run-in with the chief occurred in the early morning hours of July 1, 2014. He said he noticed a "black vehicle with dark black tints slowly circle the block twice before" before stopping at his house. Exantus said two men, who he could not identify at first because it was too dark, got out of the car. According to the lawsuit, one of the officers started to hit Exantus' barking dog with an object he believed to be a flashlight.
Exantus claimed neither man had identified himself as a police officer before hitting the dog, and as they got closer he was able to identify Cimino. In the lawsuit, Exantus said he had previously been the subject of an investigation led by Cimino, "which turned out to be fruitless."
According to a police report filed by Cimino, the chief says he went to the scene with then Detective Sgt. Albert Sally. Cimino said they had gone to Exantus' home around 4:38 a.m. as part of an investigation in an aggravated assault with a firearm at another location.
Cimino said he was not wearing a uniform but had his gold badge visible around his neck. He said he also had his radio on his hip and was carrying a notepad in his hand. Cimino said they saw three people sitting sitting on the steps of the home and "also smelled a strong odor of burnt marijuana" in the front yard.
When Exantus saw the men get out of the car, Cimino said he saw Exantus "move his head towards the steps and then swing his right arm in my direction." He said he then saw a reddish brown pit bull started running towards them from the steps.
"The actions of Exantus indicated to me that he directed the dog to attack me," Cimino says in the report.
Saying the dog looked to be aiming for his groin or upper thigh, Cimino said he "thrust my right hand in front of the attacking dog several times to stop the dog's advance." After feeling "pressure" on his arm, Cimino said the dog continued to try and bite him, noting that Exantus "took no action to stop the dog's multiple advances and attempts to bite me."
According to the chief, when the dog was pulled away, Exantus said he had not originally recognized the man.
"Exantus continued to suggest that it was improper for us to exit the car onto the public space and that the dog was justified" Cimino writes.
Cimino said he eventually noticed his arm was swollen and decided he needed treatment, at which point he and Sally "quickly asked the group" if they knew anything about the shooting. He said the three people "maintained they knew nothing of the shooting or a motive for it."
After being questioned about the shooting, Exantus said that while he was surprised police would come to his house at that time of night, he continued to tell them that he had no information about the incident. Officers left after questioning him, but Exantus said around a week later he was stopped by the Union County Police Department and told of an outstanding warrant for his arrest in connection to the alleged dog attack on Cimino.
Cimino said Exantus had directed the dog to attack him despite his badge being clearly visible, which was the reason he was charged for the attack. Cimino also said Exantus had violated ordinances in Maplewood for not having the dog properly licensed or on a leash.
Barnett said Exantus' brother was at a party where shots were fired and that he was taken to the hospital with a leg wound. She also said she believes Exantus' is the only black family on their street.
Exantus said he was "subjected to the indignities of being arrested" and "was further humiliated" being processed, put in a holding cell and taken to the Union County jail. He said he was held at the jail for five days where he said he suffered "extreme physical and emotional distress."
Exantus was indicted on charges of third-degree aggravated assault, and fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon. The lawsuit called the charges "a figment of the malicious imagination of defendants, and each of them caused Plaintiff to suffer emotional distress, anxiety, fear and psychological disturbance."
Exantus said the dog involved in the incident was taken into quarantine. Despite being told the dog would be returned if it "passed quarantine," Exantus said the dog was killed without his knowledge, which also caused emotional distress. He also claimed that as a result of the incident and his arrest, he was denied employment as a home healthcare aide. He was eventually found not guilty after a trial.
A court database shows that Exantus has never been arrested on any other indictable offense in the state.
In the lawsuit, Exantus said the defendants violated his constitutional rights by stopping him without probable cause, falsely arresting and imprisoning him, improperly denying his rights to privacy, among others. He also said in the lawsuit that the defendants "were motivated by racial animosity and desire to injure, oppress, and intimidate the plaintiff because of his race.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
Mayor Victor DeLuca and Township Administrator Joseph Manning declined to comment for this story, saying that they do not comment on active lawsuits against the township. Calls to the attorneys listed for Cimino, the township, and the department were not returned.
Sally, the officer who was with Cimino during the encounter with Exantus in 2014, was promoted last month to acting captain after the Township Committee promoted Jimmy DeVaul to acting chief.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com