TRENTON, N.J. (PBN) A state grand jury has voted to file a criminal charge against a Trenton police officer in connection with the officer’s use of pepper spray during an encounter with Joseph Ahr Sr., who died weeks after being pepper sprayed during his arrest in 2020.
New Jersey residents called to serve on the grand jury decided that the charge should be filed relating to the force that Officer Piotrowski used during the arrest of Joseph Ahr Sr., 64, of Trenton. The grand jury did not return charges directly related to the death of Mr. Ahr, who was hospitalized and later died following that arrest on July 6, 2020.
“Police officers are required to be measured in their use of force in every encounter, even under challenging conditions,” said Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin. “In New Jersey, we take this obligation seriously and my office thoroughly and independently investigates and presents to a grand jury every death that occurs during an encounter with law enforcement. This officer resorted to using pepper spray during a confrontation with a civilian in a manner that was unnecessary and contrary to his training, mishandling a situation that could have concluded so much differently.”
“Under the law and the Attorney General’s Use of Force Policy, officers are permitted to use only force which is reasonable and necessary,” said Thomas J. Eicher, Executive Director of OPIA. “The grand jury found that Officer Piotrowski should be indicted for official misconduct because his force did not meet that basic standard.”
The fatal police encounter was investigated by the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability (OPIA) and presented to the grand jury in accordance with Directive 2019-4, the “Independent Prosecutor Directive,” issued in 2019. In July 2021, OPIA issued standard operating procedures (“SOPs”) to ensure these grand jury presentations are conducted in a neutral, objective manner, and with appropriate transparency regarding the process, consistent with the Independent Prosecutor Directive.
The investigation of this officer-involved fatality included interviews of witnesses, collection of forensic evidence, review of video footage, and autopsy results from the medical examiner. After hearing testimony and evidence from the investigation, the grand jury concluded its deliberations on Tuesday, January 3, 2023, and voted “true bill,” meaning the grand jury determined this criminal charge against the officer was warranted.
According to the investigation, officers of the Trenton Police Department responded to Mr. Ahr’s home in the 700 block of Monmouth Street around 5:30 p.m. on July 6, 2020, after police received a call from Mr. Ahr’s son. Trenton officers arrived and initially spoke to the son, who answered the front door. Joseph Ahr Sr. then came to the door to speak to the officers. After the son went into the house, Mr. Ahr remained on the porch and engaged in a verbal dispute with the officers.
Officers tried to detain Mr. Ahr and he pulled away. Officers then took Mr. Ahr to the ground, restrained him, and handcuffed him. During the encounter, Officer Piotrowski struck Mr. Ahr, Sr. and deployed pepper spray at close range directly in his face on multiple occasions. While the officers were handcuffing Mr. Ahr, he stated several times that he could not breathe. After he was sitting up, Mr. Ahr complained about other medical issues, and officers summoned emergency medical personnel. EMS personnel responded to the scene, examined Mr. Ahr, treated him with oxygen, and transported him to Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton. Mr. Ahr was admitted to the hospital, where he died 18 days later on July 24, 2020.
The medical examiner concluded that the manner of death was homicide, with the cause of death listed as “acute respiratory failure following the use of pepper spray during arrest of an individual with chronic pulmonary disease and COVID-19.” A finding of “homicide” by the medical examiner indicates that another person or persons contributed to the death. It does not establish criminal liability or determine whether the actions of the other persons were legally justified.
If convicted, Officer Piotrowski could face up to 10 years in prison.
A 2019 law, P.L. 2019, c. 1, requires the Attorney General’s Office to conduct investigations of a person’s death during an encounter with a law enforcement officer acting in the officer’s official capacity or while the decedent is in custody. It requires that all such investigations be presented to a grand jury to determine if the evidence supports the return of an indictment against the officer or officers involved.
A conflicts check was conducted pursuant to the Independent Prosecutor Directive and no actual or potential conflict of interest was found involving any individual assigned to the investigation. Prior to presentation to the grand jury, the investigation was reviewed by OPIA Executive Director Thomas Eicher in accordance with the policies and procedures established for these presentations in the SOPs.