(NEW JERSEY) - As the country and our State are in an uproar about the shooting deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, there is a police shooting in New Jersey that is now in question.
The shooting death of an unarmed black man, Maurice Gordon, 28, occurred the morning of May 23rd on the Garden State Parkway. Authorities say a struggle occurred between Gordon and Sgt. Randall Wetzel, a New Jersey State Trooper, after events that began with pulling Gordon over for allegedly driving 110 miles per hour.
On Monday, June 8th, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal's office released 12 videos, including 911 calls involving Gordon. Investigators also released details of four other incidents they say involved Gordon and police within 30 hours before the shooting. The tapes can be seen and heard here.
The Attorney General Office's actions are a result of an Independent Investigation bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Britnee N. Timberlake (East Orange, Orange, Clifton, and Montclair), passed in December 2018 and signed into law in by the Governor in January 2019 after public pressure was applied. The bill required anyone who loses their lives during interaction with or while in custody of law enforcement to be handled by an independent investigator. The law also stipulates if the matter goes to court, it must be handled outside the county the incident occurred.
Sgt. Wetzel fired his weapon at Gordon six times and then put handcuffs on him after the fatal scuffle. According to the AG's release, three different troopers attempted to provide aid to Gordon, but did not detect a pulse before EMS arrived and pronounced Gordon dead. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has not completed its report, according to Dawn Thomas, Communications Deputy Director for the NJ Department of Health.
The Attorney General's Office released in a statement, "During this confrontation, Mr. Gordon attempted to enter the driver seat of Sgt. Wetzel's vehicle on two occasions. After the first occasion, Sgt. Wetzel deployed oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray. After the second occasion, Sgt. Wetzel removed Mr. Gordon from the vehicle and, after a physical struggle on the left shoulder of the southbound Parkway, Sgt. Wetzel shot and killed Mr. Gordon with his service weapon. Sgt. Wetzel fired six times and then placed handcuffs on Mr. Gordon,"
After the shooting of Gordon, Sgt. Randall Wetzel, is heard telling another officer that arrived on the scene, Gordon tried to steal his police cruiser and went for his gun during the struggle, an account the attorney for Gordon's family disputes.
"Only after being physically engaged by the officer did Maurice try to flee by the only means available, which was the officer's vehicle. (Maurice's vehicle was inoperable.) I do not believe that any party - including the Attorney General - will contend that Maurice was engaged in a theft, only an effort to flee from the officer," Attorney William O. Wagstaff, who reviewed the video prior to the public release, said in a statement. "It is also clear that Maurice did not physically engage the officer; the officer physically engaged him three separate times. During this effort at restraint, the officer fired multiple shots into Maurice's body, cuffing him as he laid dying on the side of the road after roughly manhandling his bullet-ridden body. At no time did the officer say to Maurice, 'You're under arrest,' or 'Get down in the ground,' or 'Hands up.' The officer appeared irrational as he repeatedly yelled to Maurice, 'Get out of the car! Get out of the car!' when they were both approximately 20-feet from any vehicle."
The incident can only be seen through the rear windshield of the trooper's car Gordon was sitting in moments before getting out and scuffling. The audio is clear as the officer was wearing a microphone synced to the interior patrol car cameras. According to an Attorney General spokeswoman, Sgt. Wetzel was not wearing a police bodycam because his Troop is still in the process of buying them, although all other Troops have them already.
Upon listening to the tapes, the 911 phone call placed at 3:23 am by a friend of Gordon's in Poughkeepsie New York indicated he was concerned about Gordon who stormed out and went for a drive minutes earlier. Gordon's friend was calling the police because he wanted Gordon to be found and was concerned about his mental well-being. He stated Gordon was experiencing an unidentified (for privacy) mental illness, including seeing paranormal activity. Over two phone calls, Gorgon's friend described Gordon as being harmless stating he usually has his mental condition under control.
Gordon's friend also explained Gordon had been staying in Airbnb(s) after he became homeless when a new lease agreement Gordon signed fell through on the landlord's end. He stated Gordon worked as a ride-share driver. However, Gordon’s phone, whom the dispatcher offered to ping the location of, was said by the friend to have been recently turned off by the phone company.
A few hours later, a different New Jersey officer who was off-duty but helped Gordon move his car from the Parkway earlier when it became disabled also expressed concern about Gordon's well-being, stating on the video, "There's something strange here. He's out of gas… There's something strange. I don't know what it is."
The 911 call made by the friend of Gordon, and the comments of the previous officer broadens the conversation of excessive use of police force and inherent biases into a conversation also about mental health and economic issues. These issues could all be interconnected if a person lacks the resources or insurance to pay for the medicine needed to remain mentally balanced and is then interacting with police. This case will also likely result in expanding laws around policing those with mental disabilities on top of laws in place to reduce inherent biases.
Yesterday, the shooting of Gordon and the approximate three-week silence about the matter from the State's top elected official, Governor Philip D. Murphy, has been criticized by Senator Ron Rice and the Legislative Black Caucus.
Also, yesterday, Governor Murphy released the following statement: "Most states would not require the release of that footage until an investigation is entirely complete. The Attorney General followed the procedures set up by his office under the law I signed requiring an independent Attorney General review of all law enforcement deaths. I have full confidence in the Attorney General. To repeat what I've said before – under law, I cannot dictate the process and outcome of the criminal investigation. Doing so would no longer make the Attorney General an 'independent prosecutor,' undermining both the law and the independence that is a necessary part of our criminal justice system. This matter will be presented to a grand jury."
TAPinto East Orange/Orange is an online newspaper serving East Orange and Orange as a part of a network of more than 80 franchised local news sites in NY, NJ, and FL. TAPinto recently won 3 of 5 excellence in local journalism awards by the Center for Cooperative Media in NJ. We are accredited by the NJ State Police, which is done through the New Jersey Press Association in which we are long-standing members. We take pride in providing the community with objective news, fact-finding reporting while featuring positive stories and awareness campaigns daily. Got a news tip or opinion? Interested in advertising? Looking to write a column or to provide freelance reporting? Email us at YourNews@tapinto.net. Sign up for our FREE daily eNews and follow us on Facebook.