On the evening of March 27, residents of Newburgh took to the streets to mourn Tyrell “Rex” Fincher, who had been killed by officers with the City of Newburgh Police Department just hours earlier. The outpouring of anger and grief found form in anti-police slogans and a fire set at an empty intersection. Local politicians, such as Mayor Torrance Harvey and Orange County District Attorney David M. Hoovler, were quick to admonish residents for their rage, insisting that justice would be delivered in due course, particularly through an investigation led by the DA and involving a grand jury, which would consider bringing charges against the officers involved.
“We are all in this together,” concludes Harvey’s statement on Fincher’s killing. “We will get through this together.”
On October 19, a grand jury decided not to bring any charges against any of the officers responsible for Fincher’s death. But federal court documents recently obtained by The River reveal that one of those officers is also facing charges of excessive force from a previous arrest—begging the question: Was the grand jury aware of the officer’s history of alleged misconduct?
On the afternoon of May 26, 2019, officer Ricardo Rivera of the City of Newburgh Police Department used wildly excessive force when arresting Lakeem Thompson for an alleged traffic violation, according to a complaint filed on Thompson’s behalf with the Southern District of New York. The complaint alleges that Rivera attempted to hit Thompson with his squad car, causing the latter to fall from his motorcycle; then, while Thompson was still on the ground, Rivera or one of three other officers on the scene unleashed a canine unit, which repeatedly bit Thompson, resulting in injuries so severe that he required surgery. In response to the complaint, Rivera’s attorneys claim that the officer “acted in good faith” and that “all force used was objectively reasonable.”
(McCabe & Mack LLP, Rivera’s attorneys, failed to respond to multiple requests for comment from The River.)
Thompson’s run-in with Rivera occurred just half a dozen blocks from where Fincher would be killed less than a year later after a confrontation with three City of Newburgh Police Department officers: Robert Breault, Christopher Nedwetzsky, and Rivera. The story of what happened on the afternoon March 27, 2020, has changed according to political expediency. During a press conference the following day, District Attorney Hoovler claimed that Fincher shot Nedwetzsky, resulting in the officers returning fire. Later, during a press conference on October 16, Hoovler revealed that Nedwetzsky was in fact struck by friendly fire and that the DA had distorted the reality of the situation to suppress the anger of residents in the streets:
We had that press conference that day because we were trying to calm what was happening in the city of Newburgh, because we didn’t want the destruction of property, peoples’ lives endangered, and more police officers endangered because of a false narrative.
(The irony of promoting a false narrative in order to supposedly counter a false narrative was apparently lost on Hoovler. The Orange County District Attorney failed to respond to multiple requests for comment from The River.)
Regardless of which way the story is told, Fincher lay dead after being shot four times by Rivera and the two other officers present.
Rivera is the president of the City of Newburgh Police Department’s chapter of the Police Benevolent Association, a powerful police union. He was also a defendant in a civil suit in 2018 in which a local resident, Johnell Ware, claimed Rivera and New Windsor officer Francis Pierri acted negligently and recklessly during a police chase that ended in a crash, seriously injuring Ware.
Although the City of Newburgh Police Department confirms that Rivera was present at both Fincher’s killing and Thompson’s arrest—and is facing litigation resulting from the latter—it’s unclear if the officer’s history of alleged misconduct was made apparent to the grand jury appointed to consider bringing charges against him. Grand jury proceedings are secretive, meaning nothing has been publicized about the information provided to them by District Attorney Hoovler in order to make their decisions. All that is certain from the grand jury is that no criminal charges will be brought against the officers responsible for Fincher’s death.
Beyond that, whatever information that has come out has been released by Hoovler himself via a parallel, secondary investigation conducted by his office. The district attorney’s announcement on the findings of this investigation contains no mention of the excessive force charges against Rivera—yet it does echo a claim the officer’s attorneys make in that case. According to Hoovler, Rivera was “justified in using deadly force.”
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere. He last wrote for The River about open government proceedings during the pandemic.