Live updates:Former cops in Paterson’s ‘robbery squad’ sentenced in federal court
PATERSON — The day of reckoning looms for five rogue city cops who brazenly called themselves “the robbery squad” as they preyed upon people in Paterson and exchanged boastful text messages about their illegal exploits.
One after another, Jonathan Bustios, Eudy Ramos, Matthew Torres, Frank Toledo and Daniel Pent are scheduled to stand before a federal judge in Newark on Thursday to learn how much time they will spend in prison for robbing and beating people they illegally stopped in Paterson, crimes they tried to cover up with false police reports.
The five pleaded guilty in 2018 and 2019. But their punishments were postponed as part of a deal in which they all agreed to testify against their sergeant, Michael Cheff, in exchange for the possibility of reduced prison sentences.
Cheff maintained his innocence but was convicted in a trial in May. His sentencing is scheduled for Friday morning.
The United States Attorney’s Office has sent the judge, Katharine Hayden, reports with its recommendation regarding the former cops’ prison sentences. Several of the convicted officers have filed their responses. But federal authorities have not made public any of those documents.
During Cheff’s trial, the prosecutors repeatedly said Hayden ultimately would decide the prison terms for Bustios, Ramos, Torres, Toledo and Pent.
Local activist Ernest Rucker said he is looking toward the city’s police headquarters, instead of a courtroom in Newark, to find justice in the aftermath of one of the worst scandals ever to hit Paterson.
“Justice can only be done if the Paterson Police Department takes this message and begins the healing process with the community,” Rucker said. “We need the police chief and the police director to come out with a plan to prevent this from ever happening again.”
As the FBI’s case against the rogue cops unfolded during the past four years, city officials initiated what they call reforms designed to build trust between citizens and cops, including equipping officers with body cameras, conducting a performance audit of the Police Department, and building partnerships between community groups and law enforcement.
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Paterson Police Chief Ibrahim Baycora did not respond to a message seeking his comments about what has been done to prevent another scandal like the robbery squad. Paterson Public Safety Director Jerry Speziale said it was important to remember that the city Police Department had reached out to the FBI for intervention after getting wind of the rogue cops.
“This was brought to light by the Paterson Police Department,” Speziale said. “It was not swept under the rug. We’ve taken all the appropriate measures to make sure we police our members.”
Speziale also pointed out that during the spring of 2021, the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office began providing “serious oversight” of Paterson’s Internal Affairs division.
“The egregious acts for which those officers have been convicted predate my administration,” said Mayor Andre Saeygh. “Nonetheless, my focus has been on accountability by equipping our police officers with body cameras for the first time in Paterson and having zero tolerance for misconduct and terminating any officer who violated his or her oath.”
Paterson Black Lives Matter leader Zellie Thomas echoed Rucker in saying he doesn’t think the city has done enough to change the Police Department’s culture, a culture they said allowed the robbery squad to commit its crimes.
“Body cameras are great, but they only capture the misconduct after it happens,” Thomas said. “We don’t want the misconduct to happen in the first place.”
Thomas said he has “low expectations” regarding the prison terms that will be imposed on the crooked cops, predicting that several will get less than three years.
All five officers scheduled for sentencing on Thursday — as well as Cheff — were convicted of two counts that set a total maximum of 30 years in prison, according to news releases from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Toledo, Pent and Ramos pleaded guilty to conspiring to deprive individuals of their civil rights, to using unreasonable and excessive force against individuals in Paterson, and to filing a false police report. Bustios pleaded guilty to conspiring to deprive individuals of their civil rights and to extortion.
Torres pleaded guilty in May 2019 to conspiring to deprive individuals of their civil rights and to filing a false police report. Cheff was convicted of those same two crimes.
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press.