Paterson cop criminally charged for shooting, paralyzing unarmed man

By: - February 6, 2023 7:21 pm

Attorney General Matt Platkin announces criminal charges on Feb. 6, 2023, against Paterson Police Officer Jerry Moravek, who shot a fleeing man in the back in June 2022. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has criminally charged a Paterson police officer for shooting an unarmed man in the back last year — paralyzing him — as the man fled earlier gunfire.

Officer Jerry Moravek, 40, was charged with second-degree aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury and second-degree official misconduct for the June 11 incident that left Khalif Cooper, 28, with bullet fragments in his spine and unable to walk.

Police were investigating a disturbance that night when gunfire erupted, scattering a small crowd that had gathered in the street. Moravek’s body camera footage shows that he ran toward the sound of the gunfire, but changed course when Cooper darted past him.

During a 15-second chase, Moravek shouted at Cooper four times to drop the gun, the video shows. But the officer never ordered Cooper to stop running and get to the ground, or warned him that he would use deadly force, Attorney General Matt Platkin said.

Instead, he shot at Cooper twice, hitting him once in the back, Platkin said.

That violated the state’s use of force policies, which allow officers to use deadly force only to protect themselves or the public from imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, said Platkin, who announced the charges during a news conference Monday at his office in Trenton.

“Every officer knows that his firearm is meant to be a last resort,” he said. “And our policy is clear: Officers have a responsibility to use force only after giving civilians a chance to comply with orders.”

Platkin acknowledged the “significant step” the criminal charges represent. Fatal police encounters by state law are presented to a grand jury, which rarely indicts officers. Nonfatal police shootings don’t typically go before a grand jury, and criminal charges are so rare in those cases that Platkin couldn’t respond to a reporter’s question about how often it occurs.

But Platkin said the “clear evidence” that Moravek shot a fleeing, unarmed man in the back warranted an investigation by the attorney general’s public integrity and accountability office, which Platkin’s predecessor, Gurbir Grewal, formed in the fall of 2018 as a tool to combat corruption and strengthen public confidence in government institutions.

That office has had such a rocky track record that Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union) called for an independent investigation in November into its ethical conduct. At least two indictments the office secured have been dismissed.

On Monday, Platkin spokeswoman Sharon Lauchaire said the office has charged 32 people in use of force cases since 2018. Most of the cases remain “pending,” Lauchaire said. She and Platkin declined to say how many cases the office has investigated in total, nor their outcome, since the office launched.

Mixed reaction

Moravek’s attorney, Patrick J. Caserta, questioned the office’s conduct too on Monday. He called the charges a rush to judgment, given the state takes about two years to investigate fatal police encounters and present their findings to a grand jury.

Caserta said Moravek has cooperated with investigators and had agreed to meet for a second interview this month — before Platkin announced the charges at Monday’s press conference.

“Officer-involved shootings are very serious matters which require the highest level of scrutiny, thorough investigation, and complete transparency. I have been providing counsel to police officers in such matters for decades,” Caserta said. “I see no reason, or at least no good reason, why a decision to file charges was suddenly made and why the OAG did not want to have my client’s full cooperation.”

Caserta said Moravek saw Cooper with a gun and fired his service weapon because he feared Cooper would shoot him.

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said several guns and shell casings were recovered at the chaotic scene, which sprawled over several streets.

Platkin’s office said one gun was recovered “around the block from where the victim was shot, along the path that he had run.” But investigators did not find Cooper’s fingerprints nor DNA evidence on that firearm, and it wasn’t within Cooper’s reach, Platkin said. He declined to answer further questions about guns at his press conference.

Moravek’s body camera does not show Cooper with a gun.

“I don’t got no gun,” Cooper repeated as he lay bleeding in the street and Moravek handcuffed him. “Damn, I’m hit.”

When Moravek asked him why he ran, Cooper responded: “I was scared!”

Paterson Police Director Jerry Speziale didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.

Every officer knows that his firearm is meant to be a last resort. And our policy is clear: Officers have a responsibility to use force only after giving civilians a chance to comply with orders.

– New Jersey Attorney General Matt Platkin

Sayegh defended Moravek.

“The officer ran towards the shots fired and pursued an individual whom he believed to have a gun. While it is unfortunate that an individual was shot, a preliminary review reveals that the officer was following guidelines,” Sayegh said in a statement. “We will respect the judicial system and let the legal process play out.”

Zellie Thomas, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Paterson, said he was relieved to see the state act to hold an officer accountable for excessive force.

“This should be the norm and not something that is surprising,” Thomas said.

Paterson’s police force, with more than 400 officers, has been so regularly rocked by misconduct complaints and civil rights lawsuits that a deep distrust of police persists in the city, especially in neighborhoods of color, Thomas said.

“There’s an uplifting of the mythos of police officers that they are standing for truth, justice, and the American way and that they can do no wrong — and that if they do wrong, that they will be forgiven for it. Like, ‘oh, you thought you saw a gun? That’s OK!’ No, that’s not OK,” Thomas said.

He added: “Once we chip away at these ideas that it’s OK for police officers to behave this way, then we’ll be able to get real accountability. But as long as the public and Attorney General’s Office and elected officials believe that even when police officers do something wrong, it is OK because their heart was in the right place, we will continue to not to get justice for people.”

Moravek, a Paterson officer since 2014, has been suspended without pay since the June incident. In the two years since the Attorney General’s Office launched a public database of police uses of force, Moravek has reported four uses of force. Monday, that database still describes the June 11 encounter as “person with a gun” and Cooper’s actions as “threat with a gun… attempt to commit crime.”

Asked if that erodes the credibility of the database given Moravek’s criminal charges, Eicher said the database “is populated by what the officer reports. We don’t go in and change it.”

If convicted, Moravek faces up to 10 years in prison on each offense, according to Platkin’s office.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.