Trenton cop indicted in 64-year-old’s death during violent 2020 arrest

Pepper-spraying Joseph Ahr was ‘unnecessary’ and caused his death, officials say

By: - January 5, 2023 6:51 am

Joseph Ahr Sr., 64, of Trenton, talks to police officers on the porch of his home moments before officers wrestled him to the ground and pepper-sprayed him in July 2020. Ahr died 18 days later. (Screengrab of police body cam footage courtesy of the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General)

A Trenton cop who hit and pepper-sprayed a man who later died has been indicted for misconduct.

A state grand jury agreed Tuesday to criminally charge Officer Nicholas Piotrowski for his actions during the arrest of Joseph Ahr Sr., 64, who died almost three weeks after Piotrowski pepper-sprayed him on July 6, 2020.

Piotrowski, who was one of about a half dozen officers involved in the arrest, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

While deadly police encounters have risen in recent years, indictments are rare.

State law allows police to use force, including pepper spray, if it’s “reasonable and necessary.” But Attorney General Matt Platkin said Piotrowski’s pepper spray use in Ahr’s arrest was neither.

“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,” Platkin said in a statement.

The Attorney General’s Office investigates all deaths that occur during law enforcement encounters.

Officers went Ahr’s home after his son called police. As officers spoke to the son, Ahr came to the door and argued with cops on the porch. Police body cam footage shows officers then tried to detain and restrain Ahr, handcuffing him and spraying him in the face with pepper spray.

A wheezing Ahr told officers several times he couldn’t breathe, and officers called paramedics, who took him to a nearby hospital. He died there 18 days later. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, saying Ahr died of “acute respiratory failure following the use of pepper spray during arrest of an individual with chronic pulmonary disease and COVID-19.”

Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora said Wednesday that he could not comment on the indictment because it involves pending legal and disciplinary matters.

Attorneys Robin Lord and Cliff Bidlingmaier represent the Ahr family in a wrongful death lawsuit they filed against the city.

Ahr had just one functional lung, so officers’ use of pepper spray to subdue him was a deadly decision, Lord told the New Jersey Monitor. She said she was surprised but “delighted” by the indictment.

“We started to lose hope because it’s been pending for a significant period of time,” Lord said. “We truly believe that the macing, the pepper-spraying, of Joseph is what killed him. It was inappropriate, it was uncalled for, it was contrary to humanity, let alone the law.”

Piotrowski, though, didn’t act alone, Lord added.

“We believe that all the officers that arrived there that day independently and collectively contributed to his death,” she said. “That they parsed out the man who actually pepper-sprayed him ignores accomplice liability law.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.