Surveillance technicians followed an underage drinker's interaction with police outside Tropicana Casino and Resort this summer, and the video they recorded likely will be key evidence in a lawsuit that could spend years in the courts.
That video already has led to calls for increased scrutiny of Atlantic City's Police Department. Civil rights and law-enforcement experts, however, say there are limitations to visual evidence, and many other factors -- which could be explored if the case goes to trial -- can contribute to incidents of excessive force.
"It's sort of like pornography; you know it when you see it," said Shelley Stangler, a trial attorney not affiliated with the case.
Law-enforcement officials have cautioned against a rush to judgment. Currently, the police department and Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office are investigating, and Mayor Lorenzo Langford has called for federal and state authorities to oversee the process.
"Sometimes it's quite obvious, and sometimes it's not so clear," said Ray Hayducka, a police chief in Middlesex County and spokesman for the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. "I learned a long time ago not everything is what it appears to be."
Meanwhile, the criminal attorney for David Connor Castellani, the 20-year-old Linwood man at the center of the controversy, is trying to obtain footage from inside the casino. As of Saturday, it remained unclear if such footage exists or what it would show.
According to the civil lawsuit Castellani filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Camden, Castellani was removed from Tropicana on June 15 for underage drinking. A spokeswoman for Tropicana said the casino does not comment on pending litigation.
Regardless what happened inside the casino, Tropicana's surveillance footage picked up, at 3:04 a.m., Castellani speaking with a group of officers on an adjacent sidewalk. He's initially seen with his hands behind his back, waiting to be restrained, but police allow him to make a call and then cross Pacific Avenue.
At 3:10 a.m., amid a volley of words and gestures -- the video doesn't have audio and the other party, presumably the police, is not seen -- police tackle Castellani to the ground. Five officers are seen striking Castellani with batons and knees as Castellani holds onto one officer's waist. About a minute later, a sixth officer releases a K-9 as Castellani lies face-down in the street.
Castellani, of Linwood, still faces criminal charges of aggravated assault on an officer and a police dog, disorderly conduct and resisting. His injuries required 200 stitches and ongoing physical therapy, his parents say.
The value of video
Local activists, who say they've documented allegations of police misconduct in Atlantic City for years, saw the video as bolstering their cause.
"Having it on video makes a difference," said Steven Young, president of the local chapter of the civil-rights organization National Action Network.
In some ways, Young was correct.
Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, has litigated cases against the Camden and Newark police departments. In such cases, which aren't filed on behalf of any individual client, video can help bring out the truth amid conflicting testimony.
"The availability of video is a good accountability tool," he said. "It protects police against allegations that are unfounded, and it protects citizens against misconduct."
Video isn't always available, of course. Not every incident takes place under the gaze of security cameras. Equipped police vehicles may not be parked in full view of an arrest. In some cases, officers prevent passersby from recording arrests. And, even if the video exists, not all plaintiffs have the resources or knowledge to acquire it.
But the spread of inexpensive closed-circuit television equipment and cellphone technology is changing that, Shalom said. The ACLU has launched a smartphone app to help citizens record encounters with authorities.