March 13, 2020
The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) has completed its investigation into the August 21, 2017 use of force by a sergeant of the Trenton Police Department, and has concluded that the use of force was legally justified. The MCPO determined that it is not necessary to present this matter to the grand jury because there were no material facts in dispute regarding the lawfulness of the use of force. The investigation was conducted in accordance with the Attorney General’s Independent Prosecutor Directive (July 28, 2015, Supplemental Law Enforcement Directive Regarding Uniform Statewide Procedures and Best Practices for Conducting Police Use of Force Investigations) (“directive”). Pursuant to the directive, the Attorney General’s Office conducted an independent review of the use of force and agreed with the MCPO’s determination that there were no material facts in dispute and that the use of force by the officer in this case was justified. The Attorney General’s Office concurred with the MCPO’s conclusion to forego presentation of this matter to the grand jury.
On August 21, 2017, at approximately 11:10 p.m., members of the Mercer County Homicide Task Force (HTF) were activated to investigate this incident involving a sergeant of the Trenton Police Department (TPD). The investigation, which encompassed statements of officers and witnesses, ShotSpotter gunfire detection data, body-worn camera and other video footage, and physical evidence, revealed the following facts:
On August 21, 2017, at approximately 9:56 p.m., the sergeant was on his meal break during the 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift, in uniform marked with TPD insignia, with his department-issued firearm and badge on his waist on his right side. He was using his personal vehicle for the purpose of going home to take his meal break and did not have a portable police radio in his possession. While traveling northwest on Southard Street near the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, the sergeant heard several gunshots. He lowered his vehicle’s windows to see if he could determine where the gunshots were coming from and proceeded to the intersection of Southard New Willow streets, which is the entrance to the Donnelly Homes Public Housing Project. The sergeant brought his vehicle to a stop in front of the intersection and saw two suspects running out of the housing project with masks covering their faces. One suspect was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and the other was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt. As the suspects ran toward Southard Street, the suspect wearing the red hooded sweatshirt turned and fired two shots back into the housing project. When the suspects reached the corner of Southard and New Willow streets, the suspect wearing the black hooded sweatshirt turned, faced the sergeant, and pointed a handgun in his direction. Both suspects then entered a waiting dark-colored sedan that was parked on the other side of the intersection, in front of the sergeant’s vehicle. The dark-colored sedan immediately drove northwest on Southard Street, in the direction of Calhoun Street, and the sergeant followed. Utilizing his cellular phone, the sergeant called Trenton police dispatch to let them know what he saw.
The sergeant was able to follow the suspect vehicle as it travelled through Trenton to the intersection of Kulp and Summit avenues, facing Arlington Avenue, where the vehicle parked. The sergeant brought his vehicle to a stop facing the suspect vehicle. Three males exited the suspect vehicle and two of the males fired at the sergeant, who was still in his personal vehicle, but stopped on Kulp Avenue. One of the males that fired was wearing a denim jacket and the other male that fired was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. The sergeant returned fire using his vehicle’s door as cover. The suspects fired additional rounds at the sergeant, then stopped firing and all three suspects fled on foot. The sergeant got back into his vehicle and drove down Summit Avenue in the suspects’ direction of travel, but he was unable to locate them. He remained on his personal phone with Trenton dispatch for the duration of his encounter with the suspects, reported that the suspects had fired at him, and then provided a description of all three, identifying them all as black males with one wearing a red “hoodie,” one with a black “hoodie” and the third wearing a denim jacket.
At approximately 10:01 p.m., Trenton police responded to the area of Kulp Avenue on a report of an officer-involved shooting. The sergeant drove to the intersection of Coolidge and Pennington avenues, where he was located by another sergeant. The sergeant entered the police vehicle and used the police radio to broadcast the descriptions of the suspects. He then directed the other sergeant to the suspect vehicle, later identified as a 1996 Nissan Maxima with temporary Pennsylvania registration, which remained parked near the intersection of Summit and Kulp avenues.
The sergeant was transported to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital for medical evaluation. He was not injured during the incident. At the hospital, the sergeant’s firearm was secured and later transferred to detectives with the New Jersey State Police Crime Scene Unit. An examination of the firearm and the ammunition revealed that the sergeant fired a minimum of seven rounds during the encounter.
Because of the original report of shots fired at Donnelly Home Public Housing Projects, several Trenton patrol units responded to that location but were diverted while responding to the dispatch reports that the sergeant had pursued the suspects and exchanged fire with them. As patrol units turned onto Arlington Avenue from Pennington Avenue, they saw two black males, later identified as Tommy S. Allen and Darryl Milton, walking on Arlington Avenue. Three Trenton officers stopped and detained Allen and Milton. This stop occurred approximately 10 minutes after the initial report of shots fired at Donnelly Homes Public Housing Project and was about 100 yards away from where the sergeant last saw the fleeing suspects.
The encounter with Allen and Milton on Arlington Avenue was captured on the body-worn cameras utilized by the three police officers. Both suspects were frisked but had no weapons on them. Because the involved sergeant was no longer on scene to attempt an identification, Milton was released from the scene and Allen, who had active warrants, was arrested and transported to Trenton police headquarters. A subsequent comparison of the body-worn camera footage depicting Allen and Milton, and Trenton city cameras located at the entrance to Donnelly Homes Public Housing Project, revealed that the clothing worn by the suspects in the surveillance footage was consistent with that worn by Allen and Milton as depicted in the body-worn camera footage.
MCHTF detectives responded to both the Donnelly Homes scene and the officer-involved shooting scene at Kulp and Summit avenues. Trenton police and the Mercer County Shooting Response Team responded to the Donnelly Homes Public Housing Project to conduct an investigation into the shooting at that location. During their response to the area of Pennington and Coolidge avenues, police learned that a gunshot victim, later identified as J.H., had been transported via private vehicle to Capital Health Regional Medical Center in Trenton. The TPD Crime Scene Investigations Unit also responded to Donnelly Homes and processed the scene. The New Jersey State Police Crime Scene Unit responded to Kulp and Summit avenues and processed that scene.
The ShotSpotter gunfire detection system captured 20 gunshots fired near the entrance of the Donnelly Homes Public Housing Project where the sergeant first observed the suspects as they fled after shooting back into the parking area. The ShotSpotter system also captured 11 gunshots fired near the scene on Kulp Avenue.
In conformance with TPD policy, a blood draw was conducted on the sergeant. The blood analysis was negative for ethyl alcohol and impairing drugs at the time of this incident.
As a result of the investigation, both Allen and Milton were charged in connection with the shooting of J.H. at the Donnelly Homes Public Housing Project. Both pleaded guilty to second-degree aggravated assault on February 6, 2019, and are pending sentencing.
Applying the directive to the undisputed material facts outlined above, the use of force by the sergeant was justified pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4, Use of Force in Self-Protection. The statute states that “the use of force upon or toward another person is justifiable when the actor reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.” The law defines a “reasonable belief” as one which would be held by a person of ordinary prudence and intelligence situated as the actor was.
The sergeant believed that discharging his weapon was necessary for the protection of his life. An independent analysis of the undisputed material facts led to the determination that the sergeant’s beliefs were reasonable, and the use of force in this matter was justified pursuant to all applicable laws and the Attorney General Guidelines. This statement was prepared and disseminated to the public in accordance with §8 of the directive.