Newly released dashcam video shows the final moments before an unarmed Black man was fatally shot by a New Jersey State Trooper in the early hours of May 23.
Sgt. Randall Wetzel, who is white, shot Maurice S. Gordon, who is Black, after the two got into an altercation during a traffic stop on the Garden State Parkway in Bass River, Burlington County.
Gordon, 28, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., later died.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal released video and audio recordings of the incident Monday. It came amid growing public questions about Gordon’s early morning killing.
William O. Wagstaff III, the attorney for Gordon’s family, said he was “appalled” that Grewal released all of the recordings before the family had a chance to review them privately.
“The family should not be watching the video at the same time as the public,” Wagstaff said.
A spokesperson for Grewal said the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, which is conducting the investigation, told Wagstaff on Sunday that it intended to release the footage Monday and offered to let the family view it in OPIA’s office, but that the offer was refused.
The investigation, which also involves the State Police Major Crime Bureau, is ongoing, and authorities did not say whether Wetzel would face discipline. Grewal released the recordings as part of a directive he signed in 2019 to disclose footage of deadly incidents after an initial investigation was “substantially complete.”
Gov. Phil Murphy said at an unrelated press conference Monday that the shooting of Gordon would be presented to a grand jury, which is required of all police custody deaths under the “independent prosecutor” law he signed last year.
Although Sgt. Wetzel was equipped with a body-worn microphone, he was not wearing a body camera, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said.
State Police Troops A, B, and C have body cameras, but Troop D — of which Wetzel is a member — does not. The attorney general’s office said it is in the process of procuring body cameras for Troop D.
But Wetzel’s dash camera captured parts of the encounter.
According to authorities, Sgt. Wetzel pulled Gordon over at 6:26 a.m., allegedly for driving 110 miles per hour on the Garden State Parkway.
Gordon had been pulled over by a different trooper shortly beforehand and was issued a ticket for driving 101 miles per hour.
During the second stop, Gordon’s vehicle broke down, and Wetzel called a tow truck.
Wetzel told Gordon he could wait in the back of the police cruiser, and then directed him to the driver’s side of the vehicle. Gordon appeared to be walking toward the passenger side, where traffic was passing at highway speeds.
Gordon sat in the back seat, and at least once tried to remove his seatbelt and leave the cruiser. Wetzel told him he could not leave because it was dangerous, since they were on the inside shoulder and passing cars were whizzing by. Wetzel asked Gordon if he was on medication and said he seemed “upset.” Wetzel offered to drive Gordon somewhere, and Gordon said he wanted to go to a car dealership, then later said he wanted to go to the nearest exit.
Authorities did not say if Gordon was under arrest at any time during the stop.
At one point, Wetzel asked Gordon if he wanted to wear a mask, presumably to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
A backward-facing dash camera captured some of what happened next.
Gordon opened the door and got out of the police cruiser, and the two men immediately got into an altercation. Wetzel repeatedly yelled: “get in the f–king car!”
Police say Gordon twice tried to get into the driver’s seat of the cruiser but was pulled out by Wetzel. Wetzel also reported using pepper spray on Gordon.
The two men struggled on the highway shoulder for more than a minute when several shots rang out and Gordon fell to the ground. Wetzel later told authorities Gordon had tried to get his gun.
On Monday, Gov. Murphy offered condolences to “every person who has died during a law enforcement encounter,” and said police should be accountable “when things go wrong.” He also said he had faith in Grewal and touted the independent prosecutor bill and other efforts he has taken to make policing fairer and more transparent.
Wagstaff, who spoke to WHYY Monday afternoon before he had a chance to review all of the recordings released by the attorney general, said he planned to review the footage with Gordon’s family members and help plan his memorial service.
“I’m watching a mother that’s in agony, a sister that’s in pain, and a father that’s beside himself,” he said.
Wagstaff added that, as protests erupt across the world against racism and police violence in response to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Gordon’s killing represents the latest example of a police system stacked against people of color.
“How many times does an unarmed Black man have to be killed by a white police officer before things change?” he asked.
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