NJ Police Officer Indicted For Shooting Paterson Man in Back, Paralyzing Him
TRENTON — A state grand jury has voted to uphold criminal charges against a Paterson police officer who shot a fleeing man in the back last year, leaving him paralyzed.
An indictment was handed up on Wednesday for 40-year-old Jerry Moravek, of Paterson, who faced second-degree charges of aggravated assault and official misconduct, according to state Attorney General Matthew Platkin and the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability.
The charges were initially announced last winter by Platkin’s office, which also released some body camera footage of the incident in June 2022.
’Drop the gun’ shouted during chase
Moravek was among police who responded to a noise complaint around 3:20 a.m. on June 11, 2022, where several people were gathered out on the street.
In the footage released, Moravek is heard checking in with fellow officers to be sure they are safe and asking about a firearm that had been secured when several shots are heard.
As Moravek starts running toward the area, yelling "shots fired," a man comes running past him.
The officer turns to chase him, yelling " drop the gun" several times, though no weapon is seen.
No other orders are shouted, state prosecutors have pointed out, before Moravek shoots his service weapon, striking 28-year-old Khalif Cooper, of Paterson, in the back.
He has not been publicly identified by the state but has been named in various other reports on the incident.
Bullet fragments lodged in his spine have left Cooper unable to walk.
No gun was found in the man’s possession or within his reach — though one was recovered around the corner, along the path where he had run.
Right after he was shot, Cooper tells Moravek he has no gun and was running because he was afraid.
🔷 Deadly force ‘not justified’ in this case, grand jury finds
“Police officers in New Jersey and around the country put their lives on the line every day and routinely exercise sound judgment, using force only when justified,” Platkin said in a written statement on Thursday.
“Deadly force against a fleeing suspect must be used only when absolutely necessary to stop an imminent danger. As alleged, the grand jury determined that the defendant’s decision to use deadly force against the victim running away from him in this incident was not justified.”
State law enables police officers to only use deadly force against a suspect when immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger.
Deadly force can only be used against a fleeing suspect in the rare situation when the suspect would pose an imminent danger to public safety if he were not immediately caught and stopped.
If convicted of either second-degree charge, Moravek could face five to 10 years in state prison and a fine of up to $150,000.
🔷 Paterson police overseen by NJ since March
In March, the Attorney General's Office took over authority of the Paterson police force, saying the department has faced a "crisis of confidence" after several police-involved shootings in recent years and other scandals.
Cooper had previously pleaded guilty to two separate gun crimes in 2016 and 2017, according to court records cited in a Paterson Press report in February.
In the same report, Paterson Black Lives Matter leader Zellie Thomas said Cooper’s criminal record involving guns should not be a factor in the ongoing case involving his paralysis.
🔷 Lawyer: Moravek believed his life and others were at risk
Defense attorney Patrick Caserta previously released a statement about Moravek's actions, saying that after he heard gun shots and saw a man running, "His first reaction was that the person might be a victim who needed help but as he approached the man, that person ran past and away from him. It was then that Officer Moravek saw that he had a handgun. Did this person fire those shots? Did he just shoot or kill someone? Regardless, it was Officer Moravek’s duty to pursue and apprehend that person even though it clearly meant he would be risking his own life."
Caserta continued, "During a short foot chase, there came a time when Officer Moravek believed his life and the life of other people in the street was at risk. He believed at that split-second that the person he was chasing was turning to fire that handgun at him and he realized that if he missed, the bullets could strike anyone nearby. He made that split-second decision and fired his weapon."
"He shot twice. He stopped as soon as the threat was lessened. As the bodycam video previously released in this matter clearly show, Officer Moravek immediately went to the person to provide aid and he made repeated, urgent calls for EMS" the lawyer also said, adding that "It is also obvious from the bodycam video that Officer Moravek did not know the suspect had tossed the handgun a short distance away."
No definitive evidence collected has linked Cooper to the weapon in question, authorities have said.
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Gallery Credit: Jeff Deminski