Red Bank police dashcam video from the June 3 incident on East Bergen Place. (Red Bank Police Department video. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank’s police chief has asked the Monmouth County prosecutor to review an incident involving Councilman Michael Ballard earlier this month.
The incident, which Ballard reported as it occurred outside his home during a council meeting on Zoom, led to his wife, Rose Sestito, briefly in handcuffs for allegedly interfering with a police investigation, though no charges were filed.
In addition, Chief Darren McConnell issued the following statement Tuesday:
On the evening of June 3rd, the Red Bank Police Department received a report of a stolen vehicle. The vehicle and driver were located moments later on East Bergen Place near Maple Avenue.
During the course of the investigation two individuals were briefly detained, one being the driver of the vehicle and the second being an individual who, in the judgement of the officers present, was creating a disturbance and potentially hazardous situation.
Ultimately, no charges were filed and both subjects were released at the scene. Due to fact that allegations have been made regarding the actions of the police officers and the fact that two parties involved are an elected borough official and an appointed member of a borough committee, I have asked the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office to conduct a review of the incident and the conduct of all involved parties. In this manner, a fair and impartial determination will be made, and to the extent allowable, a summary of those findings may be released in due course at the direction of the Monmouth County Prosecutor.
According to two police reports, the incident began with a 8:39 p.m. call to police from Nicole Sestito, of Spring Street, reporting that her daughter, Carmen Rivera, had stolen her car, a 2002 Honda Accord.
Patrolman Tanner Shea said he had just stopped and released Rivera on an unspecified registration issue, and joined officers Patrick Kennedy and Kristin Altimari, who had stopped Rivera again, on East Bergen Place, opposite Ballard and Sestito’s home, on the stolen-vehicle call.
In his report, Shea wrote that while he was questioning Rivera, Sestito came out of her house “acting in a disorderly manner yelling towards Rivera “Why do you have Alex’s car?” an apparent reference to Rivera’s brother, Alejandro.
“I advised Rivera she was going to be detained and it appeared as if she appeared to walk away from this officer,” Shea wrote. He said he “reached out and grabbed her arms, pulling her back towards me” and put Rivera in handcuffs. He also told her she was being detained, but not yet arrested, because of the stolen car accusation.
Simultaneously, Sestito “continued to yell stating, ‘this cop putting cuffs on her’ and ‘she just turned eighteen years old!’,” the report continues.
Altimari “advised Rosemarie multiple times to cease her actions, which she failed to do so,” Shea reported.
In her supplementary report, Altimari wrote that she had arrived on scene to find Rivera “confrontational and uncooperative” with Kennedy.
Altimari also reported that Sestito was shouting at Rivera while police tried to investigate, causing the younger woman to “cry hysterically and shout back in response.
“It was evident that the scolding her aunt was giving her was escalating the situation rather than diffusing [sic],” Altimari wrote.
Altimari said that despite her own efforts to calm things down, Sestito continued to “shout at officers and increase the tension on the scene and threatening to go inside and get her husband to further escalate the situation.”
She said she cuffed Sestito and put her in her patrol car “out of concern that the female subject would invite others to interfere with police investigation and further escalate the situation.”
Shea wrote that he was helping Altimari handcuff Sestito when Ballard emerged from the house, “yelling towards officers, ‘get your hands off my wife.'”
Shea said he told Ballard to “step back” when Ballard tried to intervene, at which point Ballard “responded by yelling ‘I’m a councilman’ and threatened to call media and administration.”
On one of two dashcam videos, one of the officers can be heard responding to Ballard, “I don’t care” and forcefully telling him and another person to “step back.”
Neither Ballard nor Sestito responded to a redbankgreen request for comment on the video and police reports Tuesday. They will be added to this post if received.
A short while later, Lieutenant Juan Sardo arrived on the scene and uncuffed Sestito. No reason for his action is offered in the report, other than Altimari noting that she had detained, but not arrested Sestito.
The incident wound down after Nicole Sestito arrived and told police she planned to file charges against her daughter, who she said had assaulted her earlier in the day.
McConnell told redbankgreen that Rivera’s mother did not follow through, and no charges were filed.
On the scene, Rivera disputed the allegation that she’d stolen the car, and showed police a text message from her brother giving her permission to take the car to shop for personal care products.
Ballard, who is African-American, later said the incident was “was not a race thing,” because his wife, like the responding officers, is white.
“This was an issue where police did not take into account the situation, and used a ‘one size fits all because this is how I’m trained to do,'” he said in a speech the following the night at a forum on police and racism.
But Sestito did claim racial bias, according to Altimari.
After he removed the handcuffs, Sardo called Altimari over to Sestito’s porch, where Sestito “identified herself as a councilman’s wife and attempted to justify her actions at the scene,” Altimari wrote. Sestito, she said, suggested that courtesy should have been extended to her “due to her position and status in the community.”
“I understood and listened to Rose’s perspective and politely tried to reach commonality,” Altimari wrote.
But then Sestito “made a comment that she believed my actions, as well as other officers on the scene, were racially influenced and made statements regarding her views, which I found to be racially derogatory.”
Altimari said she didn’t wish to continue the conversation, and with Sardo’s permission, “returned to my patrol car to carry out the remainder of my shift.”
The incident unfolded while Ballard, who serves as council president, was chairing the council’s online workshop meeting via Zoom. He had run out of his office and returned to the meeting when he said into the camera, “my apologies – my wife is outside being handcuffed and she’s in a police car for being disorderly.”
In his speech, at Pilgrim Baptist Church, Ballard called his wife’s treatment by police “overagressive,” and said he “felt that the Red Bank police officers were not being as compassionate as they could be.”
He also said that in trying to protect his family, “I felt powerless. All the power was on the other side.”
“We have a great police department, and we have great leadership” he said. “But in that instance, it could have went very, very wrong.”
Sestito chairs the borough Parks & Rec committee, and has worked in the past as a summer camp counselor.
Here are the incident reports filed by Shea and Altimari: Red Bank police Sestito reports 060320
McConnell told redbankgreen that some of the audio on the video is muted to protect private health information safeguarded by federal law.
If you value this kind of intensely local news coverage, please become a paying member of redbankgreen. Click here for details about our new, free newsletter and membership information.