Vineland’s Police Chief is speaking out for the first time and standing by his officers amid outrage and even threats over an incident in which a man died while in police custody.
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Chief Timothy Codispoti spoke publicly Wednesday on the death of 32-year-old Phillip White. According to Codispoti, the three officers who arrested White acted in accordance with the law.
White died on March 31. Officials say the ordeal began that day shortly before 11 a.m. when Vineland Police officers responded to a call for service for White on the 100 block of Grape Street.
In a 911 recording released Tuesday, a caller tells the dispatcher that White is “freaking out,” “going crazy,” and “screaming.”
“He’s screaming up there,” the caller says. “I don’t know what the h*** is wrong with him.”
Officials said responding officers called for medical assistance for White who appeared to “be in respiratory distress.” White was also handcuffed, restrained and then placed in an emergency vehicle that traveled to the hospital while an officer was inside, according to officials.
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.
Witnesses told NBC10 the 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.”
Law enforcement sources disputed witness accounts however, telling 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 was combative and that he never lost consciousness while he was apprehended.
NBC10 obtained cellphone videos taken after police responded to the disorderly persons call. The videos show White lying on the ground surrounded by three officers as well as a barking police dog. It appears to show the dog biting White in the upper body.
Chief Codispoti says the cellphone videos don’t tell the entire story however.
“They’re a part of an incident that is minutes long and those are seconds long, those videos,” Codispoti said. “Clearly what they show is what we hear on the radio. A violent struggle.”
Codispoti told NBC10 White asked for medical attention prior to any struggle with police. He also says White’s hand was on an officer’s gun, reaching for the locking mechanism, at the time of his arrest.
Codispoti’s comments come only two days after a threat from the online hacking group Anonymous was made against his department in relation to White’s death.
The video, which was posted Monday on YouTube, features a figure in a Guy Fawkes mask, popularized in the movie “V for Vendetta,” speaking in a generic computerized voice. The person demands the Vineland Police Department release the names of the officers who arrested White, place them on administrative leave and release any dashcam video of the incident.
The person also states the group would conduct cyber-attacks on the websites of the Department and Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office if their demands weren’t met. On Tuesday , the names of the officers involved in the arrest were posted on an Anonymous-related website.
“I think it should be disturbing to all of us when anybody hides and then tries to impact the life of someone else,” Codispoti said. “I don’t think anybody in America likes that.”
Codispoti also said the people in the neighborhood knew the officers, who have been placed on administrative leave, and that the information released by the hackers was already public record that anyone can obtain. He also says there’s been no security breach.
“There’s no fear,” he said. “If they wanna take that, that group can take it anyway they want.”
Chief Codispoti told NBC10 his Internet security staff notified State Police which is protocol with any cyber threat. NBC10 confirmed the FBI has been notified about the threat and will respond if necessary.
The investigation into White’s death continues and autopsy results are pending.
Anyone with information on 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.