By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Gail Lawrence was prosecuted for telling the truth about a Palisades cop
Ordinarily, one would think that driving through the jurisdiction of the PIPPD would be a fairly simple matter. But Lawrence kept getting pulled over on her way to and from Kiryas Joel, an upstate Orthodox Jewish enclave near Harriman. Between 2007 and 2012, she was stopped at least seven times and issued a total of 40 tickets. In addition, Palisades police took her involuntarily to psychiatric hospitals about six times during the period. As a result, she got to know Palisades officers well.
For at least the past eight years, the PIPPD has been controversial. In 2005, the New Jersey ACLU led an effort to stop its officers from illegally arresting gay men. There have also been allegations that the department targets Orthodox Jewish drivers, along with racial profiling charges involving black and Latino motorists.
In one incident described as profiling of Jews, a woman leaving a country-club Orthodox wedding got seven tickets for minor things, including having a dirty license plate. In another incident, a Jewish ambulance service stopped using the parkway because its vehicles were getting hit with so many tickets. In a third, members of a group of elderly Jewish people in a rental car were handcuffed and made to lie on the ground.
On several occasions, for incidents like the ones described and budgetary reasons, bills have been introduced in the state legislature to abolish the department and merge it with either the Bergen County Police or the New Jersey State Police. One such bill is pending.
In the fall of 2007, Lawrence was stopped twice and ticketed by Palisades cops for careless driving, among other things. In December 2009, she was stopped again, ticketed, and then involuntarily committed to Bergen Regional Medical Center for one day for refusing to answer officers' questions.
On May 3 and June 9, 2010, Lawrence was stopped twice more and hit with 11 traffic violations. In the May incident, she was again involuntarily admitted to the Bergen hospital for two days. In the June 9 incident, she allegedly took off at high speed and tailgated a car in front of her.
On May 7, 2010, when she was released from the hospital a second time, she went to Palisades police headquarters to retrieve her car.
Then, she met Officer Vincent Roberson, now 44, a nine-year veteran of the force.
The encounter led to an eight-month relationship. Initially, Lawrence says, Roberson tried to act like her "therapist," saying he would rather try to help her than take her to the hospital—an arrangement that bore the taint of coercion. Their conversation soon ranged into personal areas in Lawrence's life, and eventually, he began disclosing personal issues of his own life and his unhappiness with his job. He told her that he was married, but his wife was overseas awaiting a visa.
"At one point, I became his therapist," she says. "He would say how he became a cop to help people, but he began viewing his job as being a highway robber."
It's unethical for a police officer to develop a personal relationship with someone who is constantly getting in trouble, but through 2010, they spoke on the phone hundreds of times, often for hours a day, and exchanged a dizzying number of text messages. Roberson was often on duty while they were speaking, a violation of his department's policy.
On June 9 and 10, Lawrence was arrested on an outstanding warrant for $500 and stayed in jail overnight. Roberson picked her up from jail, and, she claims, "continued with his sexual advances."
Two days later, on June 12, 2010, she says Roberson met her at a New Jersey hotel for sex. They stayed overnight in the hotel.
She says they subsequently had sex at least four times at Roberson's home and at least four times in either his or her car. Some of the liaisons took place while Roberson was on duty, she says.
The thing that really bothered Lawrence and eventually led her to file a complaint was an occasion on which Roberson essentially demanded sex if he were going to continue to talk to her, she says.
On November 19, 2010, Roberson coerced her into going to the hospital. She was released the following day. On the way home, Roberson, she claims, made threats against her and her family if she filed a complaint with his supervisors.
During this period, Lawrence and Roberson exchanged angry text messages and basically ended the affair. Roberson on at least one occasion made an anti-Semitic remark.
In one message, dated December 1, he wrote, "If you don't like it, then don't answer the phone." In another that day, he wrote: "I can't stand you. I am sick of the loonacy [sic]. But I will call you again to check on you."
In another, Roberson accuses Lawrence of stalking him, and then in another writes, "LEAVE ME ALONE I'M SICK OF YOU AND YOUR PROBLEMS." In a third: "I don't want to hear ur bullshit. I don't want to argue with a loon."
When he threatens to change his number, she says: "U can change ur #. You can't change the facts. After I told you I didn't want to be with you anymore, u still stuck out ur private part."