When police came to Pamela White’s work on March 31 last year, they told her that her son had died of a heart attack on his way to the hospital.
What they didn’t say was that Phillip White died after Vineland, New Jersey, police officers Louis Platania and Rich Janasiak tackled him and sicced their canine on him.
Since then, authorities in Cumberland County have refused to provide Pamela with an autopsy for her 32-year-old son because of the ongoing investigation.
“I just went ballistic and started crying,” she remembers of the day police showed up at her work with the grim news.
911 audio released the week after Phillip’s death showed police were called because White was acting strangely and yelling in the street. People started coming out of their homes when they heard the commotion and at least two began filming when officers arrived and got rough with Phillip. (A truck driver passing by leaned out of his window to tell the officers to lay off, Pamela said.)
In one recording, an officer straddles White and punches him as the police dog is called over. Both officers continue to assail White, who was not armed. Toward the end of the video, White can be seen panting heavily as the police dog pulls at his arm, flailing limply.
“Yo, get that dog off of him,” one of the men recording the scene says. “He’s knocked out!”
“He’s not even moving,” the man continues. “Get that dog off of him!”
“I haven’t seen it,” Pamela said with disgust of the video. “Whenever it pops up I just click away from it. I know what I know from what everyone has told me, and that’s more than enough.”
In addition to roughly handling White, the cops then tried to cover up the incident.
“You see what happened? All of it?” one officer asks a bystander. When the person confirms that the arrest was recorded, the cop replies, “I’ll need your information and I’m going to take your phone.”
Filming police as long as you aren’t interfering with them is legal in New Jersey, which even the president of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police recognizes.
In a second video, White is seen turned over onto his stomach and straddled again as an officer handcuffs him. What is not seen is when or how he was put into an ambulance. More importantly, however, is what we don’t have: an autopsy.
“It took a long time until we were even able to get the death certificate in this case,” said Stanley King, attorney for the White family. King says the police dog bit White’s upper torso, and we can see in the video the dog also bit his arm.
More than a year later, authorities in Vineland, New Jersey, continue to refuse releasing Phillip’s autopsy or even his official cause of death to his family. The excuse is that autopsy results could taint a potential grand jury pool reviewing the death, but that didn’t stop the officers’ attorneys from publicly speculating that White was on PCP.
“We expect that the autopsy will demonstrate there was nothing physical about his person that caused his death,” the attorney told the press on April 8 last year, noting the “super-human strength” that comes with PCP use.
Harold Shapiro of the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, who is in charge of the investigation, had no comment when asked if it was possible that the attorney could have viewed White’s autopsy before the family does. But one thing about the attorney’s statement is clear: He is working with more information about White’s death than his own family.
Shapiro also would not say whether a grand jury has been convened to consider possible charges against the officers—despite a July 2015 directive from the New Jersey attorney general that states a grand jury of 23 citizens must be convened when police use deadly force, save a few circumstances.
Shapiro, as he has for the last year, simply repeated his no comment mantra.
“I cannot comment on anything involved with this because it is an ongoing investigation.”
Still, Pamela waits.
“Under any circumstances it would be hard, but for him to be gone in the manner that he was taken, it just breaks my heart,” she told The Daily Beast of her son. “I feel that Phillip should be here with me.”
If White died of a heart attack—as police initially told his mother—and if he attacked police as some have claimed, the officers will likely not be charged when the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office finally releases its decision.
But why sit on an autopsy report that confirms this for more than a year?
“I’m sure they are waiting for the public furor to die down, and that’s normally the case in these types of situations.” King said. “I’m extremely nervous that this year of this investigation does not bode well for Mr. White.”
A prosecutor or the attorney general’s office can refuse to release autopsy results if an ongoing investigation is underway, according to a 2005 New Jersey law. The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office cited that law in its denial of The Daily Beast’s request for White’s autopsy report last June.
Both the 2005 law and the 2015 directive firmly state that zero information regarding a police use of force incident should be released while the investigation is ongoing, hence Shapiro’s tight-lipped treatment of the case. Both also firmly state that anyone found to have leaked information should be legally punished. Maybe that will apply to the officers’ attorney, maybe it will not.
“They had their little smear campaign,” Pamela says.
Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae recused herself from the case because she knows Pamela White personally, so the task fell on Shapiro, the assistant prosecutor.
“I’ve been hearing literally for months now that they’re hoping to be able to release the findings in no short order, however, I’ve seen nothing,” said King, the attorney for the White family. “I am at a loss as to why this investigation has taken so long.”
Shapiro’s own office has shown it can conclude a use of force investigation in a more reasonable amount of time. It took the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office eight months to determine that the officers involved in Jerame Reid’s death in nearby Bridgeton, New Jersey, should not be charged. The office refused to release any information about the incident at the time, because it said a grand jury would look into Reid’s death.
But we don’t know if a grand jury has been convened for White. A simple yes or no question was met with untold variations of “no comment” on Tuesday by Shapiro. The 2015 directive requires grand juries “unless the undisputed facts of the case indicate that the use of force was justified under the law.”
King believes the facts surrounding White’s death are far from undisputed.
“I have no doubt that the force that was used was unreasonable and excessive,” he said.
As the one-year anniversary of her son’s passing came and went, Pamela White has waited. Meanwhile Shapiro has refused to answer any questions regarding the case over the past year, and the cause of Phillip’s death remains a matter of pure speculation.
“It just hurts me to see my grandchildren crying,” she said of Phillip’s fatherless children. “It hurts for me to sit here expecting a knock on the door, for him to come knocking and asking what I’m cooking, or for him to call me. It’s just traumatizing; there’s no other way to put it.
“My life has been forever changed by his death.”
Still, she waits.