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Traffic stop ends with injury, brutality allegations

By Allan Chernoff, CNN
  • Man undergoes a craniotomy after a traffic stop
  • James Black's wife files charges of excessive force against police
  • Husband faces charges of aggravated assault on a police officer and resisting arrest

(CNN) -- Two men -- one trying to protect his family, the other on the job to protect the community -- clashed one October afternoon, triggering a tragic result.

Today, one suffers with a misshapen, grossly swollen head after undergoing a craniotomy; the other is under investigation for alleged police brutality.

The incident started with what normally would have been a relatively inconsequential traffic stop.

Michelle Black, an African-American mother with her two young children in the back seat of her sport utility vehicle, was about to pull out from the driveway of her apartment complex. A white Lindenwold, New Jersey, police officer, Scott Pierson, pulled her over.

Behind Black was her husband, James, a taxi driver, who drove up next to her to find out what was the matter.

Was it police brutality?

"The officer was like, 'Move the car! Move the car!' " recalled Michelle Black. "So my husband was like, 'That's my family, officer. I was just trying to tell you that's my wife and my kids.' "

Lindenwold police say Pierson repeatedly instructed James Black to move on, but when he failed to do so, the officer placed him under arrest.

"When Officer Pierson attempted to handcuff him, Mr. Black refused to be handcuffed," said Detective Christopher Sherrer, spokesman for the Lindenwold Police Department.

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On advice of his attorney, James Black will not discuss details of the incident because he is facing criminal charges. His wife said he simply told the officer not to handcuff him in front of his family. But the story from the police differs.

"Mr. Black refused to allow the officer to put him under arrest by struggling, pulling away and wrestling with the officer," Sherrer said.

Officers are trained to control an arrest situation, Lindenwold Police Chief Stan Lemayski said.

"The officer must maintain control for the safety of the officer, the surrounding public and also the person arrested," Lemayski said.

Pierson is a police veteran with 22 years of law enforcement experience, 11 with the Lindenwold police, according to the department. His partner is a 2½-year-old K-9 German shepherd named Kovu.

During the struggle, Pierson remotely opened the canine compartment of his vehicle, Sherrer said.

"The dog sensed a threat to Officer Pierson and latched onto Mr. Black's leg."

Black, his arms and legs still scarred with bite and claw wounds, said the K-9 attack was vicious.

"His teeth were sharp. You know, it ripped my flesh like paper. Yeah, stinging."

Then, according to Michelle Black and an independent witness who refused to be identified, the officer placed Black in a chokehold.

"As soon as the dog started biting my husband, the officer lifted his arm around my husband's neck [and] started choking him, in like, the headlock position," she said. "The kids are screaming, 'Why are they killing Daddy?' "

Asked whether Pierson had used a chokehold on James Black, Sherrer said, "I have no idea. It's not a technique that would have been taught."

Sherrer declined to share the police report, citing an ongoing internal investigation.

Trauma from the incident, Michelle Black claims, caused her husband to suffer a stroke and be rushed into emergency surgery hours after he had been treated for his bite wounds.

Michelle Black said she believes the arrest was racially motivated. Within an hour of the incident, she filed a complaint against Pierson for use of excessive force. Lindenwold police intend to complete its investigation this month and forward it to the Camden County prosecutor for review and possible action.

Weeks after the scuffle, James Black has a huge swelling on the right side of his head.

"Whichever way I lean my head, [it] feels like my brain, I can feel it all float to that side," Black said.

Police charged Black with aggravated assault on a police officer and resisting arrest, third-degree offenses for which he could face three to five years in prison, as well as two disorderly conduct charges, obstruction and interference with a police officer using a K-9.

This is not the first time James Black has had trouble with the law.

In 1997, he was convicted of unlawful possession of a weapon and was imprisoned in New Jersey for 12 months in 2001 and 2002.

Eight days after the incident, Michelle Black was cited for careless driving.