WOODLYNNE, N.J. — He left one department after failing to meet its standards. At another, he racked up disciplinary infractions. He was fired from a third, yet succeeded in getting hired at another.
By the time the officer, Ryan Dubiel, 31, began patrolling the streets of this small town last year, he was at his ninth police department, and had a history of troubling social media posts and a pattern of arrests that resulted in the injury of the suspect. He succeeded in getting hired in part because New Jersey remains one of only five states that cannot revoke a police officer’s accreditation over misconduct. It also has no central database tracking police malfeasance and, until recently, had stringent rules preventing the disclosure of disciplinary records between agencies.
This month, the white officer was charged with assault for pepper-spraying a group of black youths after a complaint that they were loitering, but only after cellphone footage captured by one of them was uploaded to YouTube. A look back over the young officer’s career; a review of police records; and interviews with more than a dozen law enforcement officials, witnesses and community leaders indicate that he had a history of interactions that policing experts say should have raised red flags.
New Jersey’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, said Officer Dubiel’s path was a sign of a broken system and “a strong example of why we need a statewide licensing program for police officers.” Unlike 45 other states, New Jersey does not grant police officers a license that can be revoked for misconduct.
“Just as we license doctors, nurses and lawyers,” Mr. Grewal said, “we must ensure that all officers meet baseline standards of professionalism, and that officers who fail to meet those standards cannot be passed from one police department to another.”
In jumping from job to job, Officer Dubiel benefited from rules pushed by powerful police unions that until recently made it difficult to flag worrisome behavior to future employers. By the time his record might have otherwise raised concerns, he was applying to jobs at small, resource-poor departments that had difficulty retaining officers.
And the incidents for which he is now under investigation by prosecutors — including shooting a fleeing armed robbery suspect and an allegation that he punched a mentally ill woman who resisted arrest — never resulted in a death or drew national attention, like the killings of George Floyd and others that inspired protests.
Still, public records show that on 16 occasions over nearly a decade, arrests that Officer Dubiel initiated resulted in injury to people he was trying to subdue. Almost all of them were unarmed. The suspects often had criminal histories and limited resources — and, until the pepper-spray incident, the officer’s interactions were not caught on camera by witnesses and did not result in criminal charges against him. Officer Dubiel did not respond to repeated efforts to reach him by phone, text and email.
As the nation grapples with how to reform police forces, one problem is the lack of a mechanism for tracking officers who have been fired from or disciplined in one department and find work in another. “No one really knows how many wandering officers are on the streets nationwide,” said John Rappaport, the author of a Yale Law Journal study on the problem. Without the ability to decertify officers, he said, states like New Jersey rely “entirely on local agencies to make good hiring decisions.”
An Open Investigation
One morning last December, Kelly Jankowski, 58, was awakened early by piercing screams. She rushed outside her home in Woodlynne to find that a police officer had handcuffed a black woman on the ground.
The woman was screaming so loudly, Ms. Jankowski recalled, “that I thought she was being killed.”
What she said she saw next prompted her to file a police report and a complaint with the county prosecutor. In an interview, Ms. Jankowski said the woman was lying on the pavement, her hands bound, and the officer punched her in the chest.
“I went to both the police and the prosecutor because I didn’t want it to be swept under the rug,” Ms. Jankowski said. “I never heard anything again.”
With details she provided, The New York Times obtained from the Woodlynne Police Department the corresponding “use of force” report, which officers must file when physical force is used to restrain or arrest a suspect.
According to the report, Officer Dubiel and a partner approached a woman who had thrown trash in the street that had blown out a passing driver’s tire. At 4:15 a.m., the report notes, a 34-year-old black woman displaying mental health problems resisted arrest. For the type of force used, the form checks off: “Compliance hold,” “Hands/fists,” “Chemical/natural agent” and “Strike/use of baton or other object.” It identifies Officer Dubiel as making the arrest.
His body camera footage, which was released to The Times last week after an open-records request, shows how the woman rambled about how her iPad was stolen, how social services had taken her children away and how she suffered from schizophrenia. More than once, she said she wanted to kill herself.
After radioing their headquarters and learning that arrest warrants were out for her, the officers decided to bring her in. A protracted struggle ensued when she resisted, and both the woman and Officer Dubiel were injured, according to the use-of-force report. The woman, whose name is being withheld at the request of her family, said that the police took her to the hospital after the arrest. She said she did not file a complaint against the officer because she did not think she would be believed.
It was one of two encounters that day, Dec. 29, in which Officer Dubiel’s use of force has come under scrutiny. In both cases, as well as the pepper-spray incident, he was with other officers, but only his actions are being investigated.
At 10:57 that night, officers pursued a man suspected of committing armed robbery at a gas station. Officer Dubiel chased the man, believed to have a gun, by car and then on foot. When the suspect did not stop as ordered, Officer Dubiel shot his backside, injuring him. It later turned out the man had been carrying a pistol that shoots plastic pellets.
New Jersey allows the police to use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing suspect if an officer believes the person poses an “imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.” When force is justified, the rules urge the “utmost restraint.”
The footage was reviewed internally by the Woodlynne Police Department, an agency of just eight officers who serve a small community and are paid among the lowest median salaries in the county. The department has struggled with high turnover, according to Woodlynne’s public safety director, Edwin J. Figueroa.
After reviewing the two cases from December, Mr. Figueroa said, he referred them to the Camden County prosecutor’s office. Officer Dubiel was assigned to desk duty.
But in April, with two officers out sick with the coronavirus, Mr. Figueroa said, he had no choice but to send Officer Dubiel back onto the streets. Mr. Figueroa said he first offered him counseling, which he refused. Mr. Figueroa also asked him to reread the New Jersey attorney general’s use-of-force policy and sign his name indicating that he understood it.
A month later, the protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis swept across the nation. In Camden, the police marched shoulder to shoulder with demonstrators in a show of solidarity. Officers there then flagged Officer Dubiel’s social media posts to Woodlynne Police.
An account using the alias “Duby Copperhead,” which former colleagues knew to be Officer Dubiel’s, posted a picture of the Camden march, showing one officer surrounded by black protesters, pumping their fists in the air. “Anybody that stands behind these people is a traitor,” he wrote, according to images of his now-suspended Facebook account that his former colleagues shared with The Times. “I am so ashamed to have ever worked for such a disgrace of a police department.”
‘Washed Out’ of Camden
Woodlynne, population 2,915, is a tiny borough in southern New Jersey, wedged next to the much larger Camden, population 74,000. Their demographics are similar — about 90 percent nonwhite — but they are a world apart in their approaches to policing.
Camden, which once had a murder rate comparable to that of Honduras, is hailed as a model of reform, after disbanding and recreating its police force in 2013 to flush out corrupt cops and institute sweeping changes.
Officer Dubiel was hired that year in a wave of new recruits, according to the department’s spokesman, Dan Keashen. He was pushed out two years later, as a result of the reforms instituted.
Just 24 at the time, he had an associate degree in criminal justice from Ocean County College and had already cycled through police departments in Seaside Heights, Galloway, Edgewater Park, and Union City. Some of the jobs were part time, but a pattern was emerging: He jumped from place to place. He left one department as storm clouds gathered.
“He just wasn’t meeting our standards — we didn’t feel comfortable with him being out there by himself,” said Edgewater Park’s police chief, Robert D. Hess, adding that Officer Dubiel quit before finishing his training in 2012.
In Camden, he initially did well. Reports from his instructors during training, obtained through an open-records request, repeatedly described his attitude as “positive” and his demeanor toward citizens as “professional.”
But he also began racking up use-of-force reports in a department that was trying to reset its relationship with the community. In a two-year period, records show, Officer Dubiel used force against 16 suspects — a higher-than-average tally, a former colleague said.
Using force can mean something as minor as guiding a suspect’s arms to apply handcuffs, and is not necessarily a black mark, especially if the suspect is armed or dangerous and the amount of force is proportionate to the circumstances, Mr. Keashen explained.
But the reports documenting Officer Dubiel’s use of force raised concerns: At least 13 of the 16 people were unarmed, and more than 80 percent were injured during their arrests.
In one evaluation that summer, Officer Dubiel’s supervisor recommended he get more “de-escalation awareness for his use-of-force incidents.”
Citing confidentiality, the Camden police declined to disclose the officer’s disciplinary file. But one colleague who had access to it, and requested anonymity because of concerns about lawsuits, said the patrolman had a history of disciplinary infractions.
“Dubiel washed out of the system in Camden because of our police reforms, which imposed a more stringent code of conduct and a higher level of oversight,” said Lou Cappelli Jr., the elected executive overseeing the Camden Police.
Department to Department
Officer Dubiel moved on to Little Falls, 100 miles north. When he applied there in 2015, according to Steven Post, the police chief, nothing in the materials sent from Camden indicated a disciplinary problem.
Because of strict confidentiality rules in New Jersey governing internal affairs investigations into police officers, sharing a disciplinary file from department to department was rare and only by special request. It wasn’t until last December that the state attorney general amended the policy, making it easier to share such records.
Four months after he arrived, Officer Dubiel resigned and moved to Far Hills, which paid more, according to the Little Falls police chief, Steven Post.
Officials there declined to release his record, but confirmed that he was fired within three months. An internal affairs investigation accused him of unauthorized absence and an integrity violation, and cited concerns over his fitness for duty, according to Dorothy S. Hicks, the borough’s clerk.
After a short stint at a small department that dissolved, in Wenonah, N.J., Officer Dubiel arrived in Woodlynne last August.
But first, Lt. John Robinson of the Woodlynne force visited Camden’s police headquarters to review Officer Dubiel’s file there. There were some disciplinary infractions, he said, but nothing that seemed serious enough to preclude hiring the officer, and he was unaware that Officer Dubiel had been fired elsewhere. “Maybe we should have looked more deeply,” he said.
Mr. Figueroa, Officer Dubiel’s supervisor in Woodlynne, said that he had been unaware of any past disciplinary records or the firing, and that it “would have certainly been an alert.”
Mr. Cappelli in Camden said, “At no time did Dubiel get a recommendation for employment from our professional standards bureau or the chief of police.”
New Jersey — along with California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — is among the few states that cannot revoke an officer’s credentials because of misconduct, according to policing experts. Although the state requires officers to undergo training for which they receive a certificate, the police in New Jersey have no analogue to the licenses required of other professionals there — licenses that can be stripped, said Roger Goldman, an emeritus law professor at St. Louis University.
“If the state can take away the license of a barber for misconduct, surely it should be able to do so for a police officer,” Mr. Goldman said.
A secondary problem is that, with no central licensing authority, there is also no statewide system to track police abuse, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office said.
The Protests Begin
Earlier this month, signs in Woodlynne announced a local march against police brutality, after the killing of George Floyd.
Among Officer Dubiel’s posts to the Duby Copperhead Facebook account around that time was a picture of an AR-15-style rifle lying on his knees, with the caption, “Come to the suburbs … please.”
Concerned officers in Camden said they repeatedly complained to the Woodlynne department. Mr. Figueroa said he again gave the officer a talking-to.
“He felt remorse for what he did, and he told us that he’s going to take down the site,” Mr. Figueroa said.
Less than a week after, Officer Dubiel and his partner responded to a 911 call from an upset property manager, claiming that a group of young men were loitering, trespassing and smoking marijuana. It was June 4 at around 1:30 p.m. when Officer Dubiel approached the home of 16-year-old James Horn. He and four friends, ages 15, 17, 18 and 20, were out on the stoop, smoking tobacco cigarettes and talking loudly. Neighbors say they are a nuisance and often get out of hand — one woman pointed to a window she claims they broke — but no one interviewed supported what happened next.
When the officer asked for their IDs, the young men told him to get lost. “It’s my house,” protested the 16-year-old.
Then Officer Dubiel lifted his hand and pepper-sprayed one of them in the face. As they ran, he chased, spraying one, then another several more times. No marijuana was found. The 20-year-old was arrested on charges of smoking tobacco underage smoking; the legal age is 21.
Footage from the officer’s body camera was eventually released, but in the meantime, multiple cellphone videos were uploaded to YouTube. By the time of the Woodlynne protest march three days after the incident, Officer Dubiel had been suspended. In addition to holding up signs calling for justice for Mr. Floyd, residents held up pieces of cardboard showing Officer Dubiel’s name with an X through it, demanding that he be fired. Within days, prosecutors brought the assault charge.
Grace Ashford contributed reporting, and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.