NEWARK, NJ — In the late afternoon of Sept. 26, 2018, Paul “Boink” Braswell climbed into the passenger seat of his cousin’s pickup unaware that they were being followed by a multi-agency task force.
The detail was investigating Braswell, 29, and his cousin Phil Belton for firearms trafficking. According to authorities, a confidential informant reported that the two were setting out that day to sell two weapons, including one assault rifle.
Less than two hours later, officers attempted to arrest the cousins after witnessing what they said was a sale. But the attempt to stop Belton’s truck ended with officers firing 74 rounds into the vehicle after they said Belton tried to ram them.
Braswell, who was unarmed, remained unresponsive in the vehicle for at least 45 minutes while police tried to negotiate with him. Police waited for a mobile robot to arrive and breach the car door, meanwhile shouting commands via megaphone for Braswell to exit the vehicle as he sat slumped over in the passenger seat, dead from gunshot wounds.
Now, two years later, Braswell’s grieving family members have filed a lawsuit against the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and its officers claiming they used excessive force against Braswell.
Paul Braswell Sr., Braswell's uncle and a retired Newark police officer, has led an effort seeking answers in his nephew’s case. While he acknowledges Braswell may have been in some trouble, he and the rest of the family want accountability for what they say was a knee-jerk reaction that resulted in their loved one’s brutal death.
“We all loved him, he was a sweet, kind man. It wasn’t a matter of what crime he committed, it’s basic civil rights,” he said. “That’s all we’re looking for — why did you take the method that you took on that day?”
Growing up, his family members say, Braswell was no angel — he’d racked up two felony convictions for theft — but was hardly the one to originate shady plans. He was raised by his grandmother and grandfather — Newark Police Department’s first Black mounted officer, motorcycle officer and a founder of the Newark Bronze Shields. His uncles were also celebrated members of the Newark Police Department.
Given his upbringing, Braswell knew better than to resist or challenge police. But growing up in Newark’s South Ward, where much of the city’s violence occurs, he was easily influenced by his surroundings and dubious characters who saw something to take advantage of in his quiet, passive nature, according to friends and family.
“I always would tell him, who else got caught but you?” his half-sister’s mother, Rose Braswell, recounted. She would tell him, “You’ve got to be careful, and you’ve got to stop hanging with who you’re hanging.”
At 2:10 p.m. on Sept. 26, as Braswell stood in the driveway of his family’s Goldsmith Avenue home and peered into a storage box where police would later find three firearms, Essex County officer Det. Erik Udvarhely was conducting surveillance on Chancellor Avenue in an unmarked vehicle.
Braswell climbed into the passenger seat of Belton’s silver Ford Super Duty pickup, and they made their way toward Maple Avenue.
Udvarhely broke off surveillance as Sgt. Christopher Bozios Jr., who led the investigation, and other surveillance units moved in. Fourteen officers from Essex County Sheriff's Department, Irvington, Bloomfield, Newark and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration were in on the detail. It was set in motion by the confidential informant who reported that Braswell would be transporting an assault rifle.
Along the northern curb of Hansbury Avenue, Braswell, Belton and now a third man peered into the back seat of Belton’s truck. Sheriff’s officers saw this as confirmation of a sale, according to an incident report obtained by TAPinto Newark.
The two officers believed they observed Braswell and Belton showing a potential buyer illegal items, which Bozios wrote is common practice when potential buyers wish to see such items before negotiating a sale price. They then relayed their observations to other detectives, according to the report.
At a gas station a short distance away on Chancellor and Maple, the two cousins fueled up and pulled off to repeat the same process with another supposed buyer. Buyer looks in the truck. Buyer walks away. Braswell and Belton drive away.
Lyons Avenue and Bergen Street is where the operation ended. According to the report, at around 3:45 p.m., Bozios Jr. and Det. Gino Izzo ordered detectives, all in unmarked vehicles, to stop Belton’s truck at the stoplight where the two streets intersect.
Belton panicked at the sight of plainclothes officers, whom he says he perceived as “a man … with a gun” in a letter he wrote to an attorney from Northern State Prison. He also wrote that officers cut him off as he approached the light and he did not see or hear them identify themselves with lights or badges.
The incident report, however, states officers identified themselves as police and approached Belton’s vehicle from the rear, left and part of the front with emergency lights on and badges visible.
Belton reversed his truck into the unmarked police car directly behind him, pinning one of the detectives between his truck and the police vehicle on the driver's side, the report says. Belton lurched forward, striking another police vehicle and a civilian vehicle also stopped at the red light. The second police vehicle was pushed into another officer standing by, though reports do not indicate that either officer was injured.
The chaos swelled. Belton cut a hard left and reversed again, this time backing over the hood of another police vehicle. A hail of bullets began to ring out in rapid succession from the guns of eight officers. They continued to fire as the truck propelled across the street and crashed into a tree that still bears the scars of that day.
Seventy-four shots went into the vehicle, none exited, according to the Essex County Prosecutors Office. One officer from the Newark Police Department and one from the Irvington Police Department fired, while the rest were from the Sheriff’s Department. Inside, the two men were unarmed, the guns still tucked away and packaged in the back. Belton emerged from the vehicle, bloodied by 10 bullet wounds. Braswell did not rise.
In use of force paperwork obtained by TAPinto Newark, the firing officers reported that both Braswell, the passenger, and Belton made physical attacks on officers with a motor vehicle. Officers also said that the men threatened them with firearms, but the prosecutor's office said that there was no evidence any bullets were fired from the vehicle, and all the weapons were uncovered in a storage box in the back seat.
The Essex County Sheriff's Department did not respond to comment, and Newark Police Department directed all inquiries to the Essex County Prosecutor's Office.
LEFT FOR DEAD
A few miles away at Newark Liberty International Airport, Braswell Sr.'s cell phone buzzed nonstop while he was on the job working security. It was friends from the force, sounding concerned after hearing his name over the radio.
“People were calling me, thinking it was me. My friend told me that it came over the radio that I was in a car on Bergen Street, trapped,” Braswell Sr. said. “That’s when I called home and asked where Boink was, and they told me that he left, they didn’t know.”
Braswell Sr. arrived at the scene along with Braswell’s half-sister, Amira Braswell, to find an image from their worst nightmare. Both relatives said they waited for close to three hours until police brought in the robot, though police reported it only took 45 minutes. Amira frantically called Braswell’s phone over and over, praying he would pick up and dispel their fears.
According to a statement provided by the prosecutor's office, the Newark Police Department Emergency Response Team created a perimeter around Belton’s bullet-riddled truck and employed the use of a megaphone to “negotiate” with Braswell. Amira said she pleaded with officers to speak to him through the megaphone, but was told it would be an intrusion into their investigation.
“After exhausting all efforts to make contact with the second occupant of the vehicle, ERT members employed the use of a robotic device and breached the front passenger window of the pickup truck,” ECPO said. “At that time, it was learned that the remaining occupant of the vehicle, Paul Braswell, had passed away due to an apparent gunshot wound.”
Amira relays the breaching of the door with difficulty and said to this day she does not understand why police used robotics to approach her unresponsive brother.
“I was pleading with them to get him medical attention because I could see the vehicle with the bullet holes, and I wanted to know if he was OK. I stood out there for approximately three hours until the robot came and pulled the door open, and I was able to see his leg,” Amira said. “We stood there until they brought the towing truck and carried his body, inside the vehicle, away. They would not take him out of there.”
ECPO said that the suspects were provided medical attention as soon as possible. Just two blocks down the road, a street sign dedicated to Braswell’s late grandfather stood visible from the corner: Horace Braswell Avenue.
“I had to watch a lifeless body, and my brother was just so full of life. Was he the most innocent person in the world? No. But he was still a person.”
Immediately following the death of his nephew, Paul Braswell Sr. sprang into action as the rest of the family crumbled in the aftermath of the violent loss. His police training afforded him the ability to put his emotions aside and begin the long legal process.
He planned the funeral, contacted a lawyer, wrote a letter to ECPO requesting a timeline for their investigation into the shooting and its subsequent findings. Two weeks following Braswell’s death, Braswell Sr.’s brother, Zaid Braswell, also a veteran Newark officer, died after a long fight with cancer.
Belton was initially charged with three counts of unlawful possession of a handgun, a rifle and a shotgun and with being a convicted felon in possession of a weapon. Prosecutors later added eluding, which Belton pleaded guilty to in addition to two weapons.
“I had no response from any government body,” Braswell Sr. said. “After that, the family kind of went into mourning for two years.”
The ECPO, which released its opinion of the incident in May of this year, found 74 shots were justified. Despite both occupants of the vehicle being unarmed, investigators found the officers had “reasonable belief” that deadly force was necessary. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity and Accountability subsequently conducted an independent review of the investigation and agreed with ECPO that the matter did not need to be presented to a grand jury, a spokesman for the AG’s office said.
While prosecutors may have determined no criminal charges should be brought against the officers who fired on Belton’s vehicle, the family is now seeking civil relief.
The Braswells’ attorney, Ray Hamlin, is now taking on ECSD in a lawsuit that also names officers who discharged their weapons more than 10 times as defendants.
“The excessive use of force against this unarmed black man is yet another example of a long tortured history of deadly encounters between black people and law enforcement,” Hamlin said. “We intend to pursue all those responsible for this unnecessary and untimely death.”
The suit, filed on Sept. 25, charges that the officers involved in the detail violated Braswell’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. It also argues that Essex County Sheriff's Department failed to properly train officers in use of force and techniques necessary to secure the search of a vehicle, proper dispatch policy and customs regarding arrests.
Keith Taylor, a retired assistant commissioner for the New York Police Department and adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that as a matter of policy, different departments have different rules regarding the use of force against a moving vehicle. In New York, officers cannot discharge their firearms at a fleeing vehicle unless deadly physical force is being used against police or another person present by means other than the moving vehicle.
Taylor added that according to the Essex County Prosecutor’s report, he believes the officers had no way of knowing whether Belton and Braswell were armed.
“There were firearms in the vehicle, and at any moment, they could shoot against the officers,” he said. “So there’s a clear line of danger with the illegal firearms, and the officers were more than likely very concerned that they could end up with a very bad outcome.”
On the streets of Newark, gun violence is a persistent adversary and one the city takes seriously, according to Zayid Muhammad, a local organizer for Newark Communities for Accountable Policing.
Trafficking guns is no small infraction, particularly in the South Ward, where much of Newark’s shootings occur.
“If there was a way they could have been subdued without all of that force, that would have been better off all around, and that would have been good policing,” Muhammad said. “Just that volume of shooting in broad daylight, when you haven’t been fired on, is excessive and a danger to the public beyond the intended targets.”
This summer, with the outpouring of support for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter in Newark, the Braswell family — stronger, but a long way from healed — said they felt a call to action they said they couldn’t ignore. Braswell Sr. reached out to Donna Jackson, a community advocate and organizer who has been helping the Braswells stage rallies under the title “Justice for Boink” since June.
As often as possible, the family and community allies gather on the corner of Bergen and Lyons, where Braswell was shot to death in 2018. Jackson said that before Newark’s leadership decries injustices occurring in other cities, it must address its own.
Braswell’s mother, Myra Muniz, said, “They left him out here like he was just an animal. Until it happens to your child, your father, to somebody that you love, you won’t know what I’m going through. Every day, I’m dying on the inside. He shouldn’t have been killed that way.”
Amira Braswell said she wants someone who will be fair to investigate what transpired on that street corner two years ago.
“My grandfathers, my uncles, they’re all legends in Newark, but to have their name shamed the way it is ridiculous. (74) shots fired — his civil rights were violated. Can you justify (74) shots?” Amira said. “By any means necessary, we need justice. He didn’t shoot at the police, he was a passenger in the vehicle. I want to know why I’m not able to have a niece and nephew.”