The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s office revealed new details Wednesday on a Vineland man who died while in police custody. But several questions still remain.
Officials say the ordeal began at 10:53 a.m. Tuesday when two Vineland Police officers responded to a call for service for a disorderly person on the 100 block of Grape Street in Vineland. When they arrived they found 32-year-old Phillip White.
“Shortly thereafter, officers called for medical assistance in response to White appearing to be in respiratory distress,” a spokesperson for the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office said. “During the incident White was handcuffed and restrained.”
White was placed in an emergency vehicle and taken to the hospital, according to officials. Officials say an officer was with him at the time. At some point, White became unresponsive and medical personnel instituted CPR, according to investigators. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital. What remains in dispute are the events that occurred immediately before White’s death.
“Events that transpired between the time of the officer’s arrival and White’s transport to the hospital are under investigation by the Cumberland County Prosecutors Office,” the spokesperson said.
Witnesses told NBC10 responding officers were extremely physical with White after he was already restrained and unconscious on the street.
"They punched him, stomped him, kicked him and then they let the dog out of the car," said Ricardo Garcia. "The dog bit him on his face and around his body. There's no call for that. Once a man is handcuffed and unconscious, you should have stuck him in the patrol car and take him to the police station. Instead they decided to beat him right here."
Another witness, Luis Martinez, also insisted White wasn’t doing anything wrong and that the officers used excessive force.
“The other cop let the dog out and they just kept punching him and the dog kept biting him at the same time,” Martinez said. “He was on the floor. Like, he was knocked out.”
A dog is heard barking on a police dispatch recording of the incident.
“118 West Grape,” the dispatcher says in the recording. “Subject…hyperventilating. Officers out.”
An officer is also heard on the recording.
“Slow all units down,” the officer says. “Subject under…tried disarming me…tried to grab my gun.”
Law enforcement sources also disputed witness accounts that the officers punched White after he was handcuffed. The sources told NBC10 White engaged in a violent struggle with one of the officers after they called an ambulance for him. They also said at times White remained combative and they insist he never lost consciousness while he was apprehended.
Vineland Police Chief Timothy Codispoti offered his condolences to White’s family while urging the public to wait until all the facts surfaced before making their judgments.
"Our sincere thoughts and prayers are with the family of the deceased and with the Officers involved," he said. "I ask that everyone allow time for our justice system to now investigate this matter to its truthful conclusion. The Vineland Police Department is cooperating with the prosecutor’s office and I urge anyone with information regarding this incident to contact the prosecutor’s office with your information.”
White’s aunt, Valerie White, told NBC10 she is desperate for answers.
"Why, what he was doing, I don't know," she said. "I'm trying to get answers and closure now. He lived a street life but he was a human being. Bottom line."
Sources told NBC10 White had a violent run-in with police last year during an arrest for shoplifting. According to the sources, an officer suffered a serious shoulder injury after White assaulted him.
An autopsy on White is pending. Sources have also indicated there may be video recordings of the events leading up to White’s death.
Anyone with information on any video recordings of the incident should call Sergeant Scott Collins (856-466-5127) or SAC E. Ronald Cuff (609-381-4890) of the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office.