Patrick Duff, a frequent OPRAmachine user and publisher of the Rabble Rouser Blog explained that it was his threat of litigation that led to Lavallette Borough Clerk Donelly Amico dropping her demand for a 100-day extension on his OPRA request for police body cam footage of the arrest of activist Jen Coombs, who was arrested after borough officials accessed a law enforcement database to find a warrant for her arrest when she appeared at the borough's municipal complex seeking to file an internal affairs complaint. Other OPRAmachine users has reported similar responses to their requests from the Coombs is the operator of the "Time to Change - Jersey Style" YouTube channel and has frequently clashed with law enforcement authorities in Monmouth County as she has sought to film public spaces and meetings.
"This video shows that police illegally accessed the NJ criminal database in order to obtain information on a first amendment auditor, Jen Coombs," Duff wrote on his YouTube channel. "Why were they checking the database if she was not being detained or stopped in a vehicle?"
"My threats of a lawsuit to Lavallette for the body cam footage of an activist’s arrest, worked! I got the video, but not without a disclaimer in the video that i must get permission from the Chief of Police to use the video," Duff wrote in a post on the NJ OPRA, OPMA & Open Government Facebook group.
Duff's OPRA request has not yet been made public on OPRAmachine as he is a Pro user with the ability to embargo his requests, but he shared the following snippet from his request thread on Facebook:
The Clerk's office backed down from their extension demand, but not without releasing the video with a legally specious and questionable disclaimer that contends "permission" must be obtained from the Lavallette police chief to use the video. The disclaimer did not cite any legal authority requiring "permission" for the use of the video, so it is doubtful whether it would hold up in court given that it is a public record disclosed in response to an OPRA request.
Coombs, for her part, recently prevailed in Monmouth County Superior Court and received two not guilty verdicts in connection with her legal issues. A triumphant Coombs gave an update on her YouTube channel last week.
A Troubled Police Department
The tiny, 1.2 square-mile borough has been rocked with controversy and allegations of nepotism in the police department in recent years.
After former Police Chief Colin Grant - who faced assault charges for allegedly beating his girlfriend and was also the subject of a $650,000 settlement payment in connection with a lawsuit over the 2003 death of 23-year-old Albert Kushinsky who "died after falling while handcuffed" in the custody of Grant - retired, the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office apparently felt that nobody in the department was qualified to take over as chief, so they took over operational control of the Lavallette Police Department in May, 2022.
Citing numerous deficiencies, the OCPO report also found a "meddlesome pattern of behavior by the governing body, current business administrator and current township attorney into the daily operations of the police function(s) of the Department, and continuous attempts to interfere with OCPO’s implementation of plans/directives/policies designed to meet current police standards."
All in the Family
For the Lavallette mayor and his sons, the police department is a family affair. The son of Mayor Walter LaCicero, Christian LaCicero was recently installed as the borough's police chief following a contentious battle with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office over control of the department, with the borough suing to regain control. The borough council appointed LaCicero as police chief without having any formal training. Similarly, Sergeant Michael Monica was appointed as internal affairs officer without having any formal training either, which apparently caused concern for the prosecutor's office.
LaCicero's other son, Adam LaCicero, is a sergeant in the department now overseen by his brother, and has recently been involved in the high-profile arrests of activists who sought to film public meetings of the Borough's mayor and council.
Sergeant Adam LaCicero arrested and removed the activists from the public meeting at the direction of his father, Mayor Walter LaCicero who presides over the meetings. Those cases remain pending.