ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A law enforcement veteran named on Thursday to manage an Albuquerque police unit for dispatchers and real-time crime analysts was accused decades ago in a lawsuit of using excessive force while conducting a traffic stop as a New Jersey state trooper.
The lawsuit, which also included racial profiling claims stemming from other incidents involving troopers, was eventually settled, with state payouts ranging from $25,000 to $200,000. Leonard Nerbetski was accused in the 1996 lawsuit of twisting the arm of an Egypt-born woman in her 20s and holding a gun to her head.
The Star-Ledger newspaper in Newark reported the state admitted to no wrongdoing under the settlement. A voicemail left for Nerbetski requesting comment at a number listed for him in New Jersey was not immediately returned late Thursday.
Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in a statement that Nerbetski was hired for his expertise in crime analysis and running a “high-level smart policing program.” Mayor Tim Keller said his hiring was among several intended to help manage “a more effective and community-focused APD.”
They come as the city’s police department takes part in a court-mandated, years-long reform process after facing years of scrutiny over shootings and use-of-force by officers. A report after a U.S. Justice Department investigation in 2014 found a “culture of aggression” within the Albuquerque police ranks.
The department spokesman said Nerbetski was highly recommended by members of an independent team that has been assigned to monitor Albuquerque’s progress on implementing police reforms. The same team members had tracked a similar reform process for New Jersey State Police, Gallegos said.
In 1999, an Associated Press report named Nerbetski as one of two troopers accused of roughing up Laila Maher and Felix Morka, both minorities, during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike. Both law students, Maher and Morka had become lawyers by the time their case was settled.
While the state admitted to no wrongdoing under the settlements, the Star-Ledger reported that the traffic stop involving Nerbetski and the other trooper led to changes in how state police handle complaints of misconduct.
On Thursday, Maher, who was in the passenger’s seat during the traffic stop, told the AP that the encounter continues to have a lasting impact on her, and she still becomes filled with anxiety when police pull her over for a routine stop.
According to the lawsuit, Morka had been driving Maher’s car in January 1996 when they were stopped for speeding. As Morka attempted to get his wallet to show his license, one of the officers grabbed his collar and slammed his head on the steering wheel, then dragged him from the car, the suit claimed.
When Maher got out of the passenger’s seat to see what was happening, she was immediately confronted by Nerbetski, who held a gun to her head, twisted her arm behind her back and slammed her against her car, she said.
“I just hope he’s not the same person he was back in 1996,” Maher said. “I hope he’s changed.”
The other new officials hired by Albuquerque police on Thursday include Elizabeth Armijo, who will be the department’s deputy chief of staff after serving as a New Mexico State Police lieutenant, and Damon Martinez, a former U.S. attorney who will serve as chief policy adviser.