But as police responded about 20 seconds into the fight, they threw the light-skinned teen to the couch, and a male officer tackled and pinned the Black teen to the floor. As the male officer straddled the teen, the female officer on scene appeared to have her knee on her boy’s back. The Black teen showed no signs of resistance, according to the video.
While this was unfolding, the light-skinned teen sat on the couch and was not detained by police. Young people who witnessed the fight quickly observed the juxtaposition. A young woman is heard saying in the video, “It’s because he’s Black, racially motivated.”
The force that police used in the mall fight has sparked outrage. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said the incident showed a clear difference in how police handled the two teens.
“Although an investigation is still gathering the facts about this incident, I’m deeply disturbed by what appears to be racially disparate treatment in this video,” the governor tweeted. “We’re committed to increasing trust between law enforcement and the people they serve.”
Bridgewater Police Chief Paul Payne did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Wednesday. The police department posted a statement to Facebook on Monday noting that an investigation is ongoing and that it has asked the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office to assist in the probe.
“We recognize that this video has made members of our community upset and are calling for an internal affairs investigation,” the department wrote. “The men and women of the Bridgewater Township Police Department are thankful for our community partners and look forward to continuing to build our positive relationships.”
It’s unclear whether the officers, who have not been publicly identified, have faced discipline. No charges have been filed against the teens.
A nationwide debate over officers’ use of force has intensified as part of a push for policing overhauls since George Floyd’s murder in 2020. More than 400 bills were introduced in state legislatures last year to address officers’ use of force — although there have been few indicators of substantial reform. The FBI launched its own data collection program to track police use of force in 2019, but a lack of participation by departments has put that program’s existence at risk.
Police said officers were at the mall in Bridgewater, about 40 miles west of New York City, on Saturday because they had received a tip that a fight could break out. Authorities did not say whether that tip was related to the teens.
A woman who identified herself as the Black teen’s mother posted to Instagram about how her 14-year-old son is an eighth-grader who “interfered with a high school boy bullying other kids in Bridgewater Mall.” After summarizing what happened in the fight, she posed a question to Bridgewater police in her post by Ella: “Is this how you Cops work? Pinning under aged boys to the ground?”
She did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. She told NJ Advance Media that her son de ella was in handcuffs for 30 minutes and that she was concerned about the officers’ use of force.
“I’m not going to point fingers at race. I just know that the cops handled my son in a way that I don’t agree with,” she said. “My focus is not on the racial aspect. It’s more on I don’t like the fact that the cops handled my son like that and the other boy was not touched. I don’t like what happened, but I’m not going to be the one to say that it was racially motivated.”
The way police handled the Black teen also surprised the 15-year-old he was fighting. In an interview with WPIX, the boy, identified only as Joey, said he immediately knew that the way police were handling the Black teen was “wrong.”
“I knew there was going to be problems when they did that,” he said. “They didn’t go for me.”
Joey also wondered why the officers didn’t put him in handcuffs as they had with the Black teen. Video of the incident shows Joey — who WPIX reported is Latino — putting his wrists together.
“I didn’t understand why,” he told WPIX. “I even offered to get handcuffed as well.”
Troy Fischer, senior general manager of Bridgewater Commons, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He told local media that both teens were banned from the mall for three years “for fighting and for other [prior] incident.”
The prosecutor’s office said in a statement that its internal affairs unit would be “investigating the incident in accordance with the New Jersey Attorney General Guidelines and Directives.”
Bridgewater police are asking anyone with additional video of the incident to come forward. While some authorities applauded for saying an investigation is underway, others questioned the department and called on the officers to be disciplined.
Sienna Freidinger, who recorded the video of the incident, echoed the sentiments of critics: “The Black kid was the only one who was getting tackled.”
Marisa Iati contributed to this report.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism