For Immediate Release: June 8, 2020
Video Reveals Justifiable Use of Force by New Jersey State Trooper
At this time, more than any other, people are understandably feeling angry, frustrated and deeply concerned about deaths stemming from police interaction. The horror of George Floyd’s death was a tragedy and we offer our sincerest sympathies to his family and friends. What happened in Minneapolis was unforgivable. It hurts all people, including good, honest, and committed law enforcement officers, who have come together to condemn the violence on display in the video from Minneapolis. No one in law enforcement should – or could – justify the actions of those officers. We are more than a uniform – we are your neighbors, your families, and your friends. We stand with you in your pain, and we respect your right to protest peacefully. More importantly, we respect and appreciate the reasons for that protest.
Unfortunately, it is under the backdrop of pain and protests that New Jersey residents and others learned that a New Jersey State Police Sergeant was forced to use lethal force against Maurice Gordon, in the early morning of May 23, 2020.
This incident is very different from the one that led to George Floyd’s death. Initially, we note that the Attorney General has released all videos and calls related to Mr. Gordon that evening which can be accessed below.
It is important to look at the videotape of the stop, to consider the Trooper’s courtesy and multiple attempts to safeguard Mr. Gordon, using verbal commands, physical resistance, and then pepper spray, escalating to lethal force only when Mr. Gordon tried to grab the Trooper’s gun. This incident occurred not because of police aggression, but despite every attempt to deescalate the situation.
Sgt. Wetzel was assigned to a supplemental patrol targeting aggressive driving on the holiday weekend when Mr. Gordon’s vehicle passed him traveling at 110 mph on the Garden State Parkway. Mr. Gordon pulled over in the left shoulder with his vehicle partially in the left lane. Mr. Gordon explained to the Trooper that his car was disabled, and the Trooper responded by calling a tow truck to the scene.
Sgt. Wetzel returned to his car after obtaining partial credentials from Mr. Gordon, at which point Mr. Gordon attempted to leave his vehicle. Sgt. Wetzel asked him to get back in the vehicle, because wandering onto the highway is incredibly dangerous. Nevertheless, Mr. Gordon attempted to exit the vehicle again, prompting Sgt. Wetzel to invite Mr. Gordon to sit in the troop car since his car was going to be towed and he would need a ride off the Parkway.
It was only when Mr. Gordon tried to walk into traffic a second time did Sgt. Wetzel accompany Mr. Gordon to the back of the Troop vehicle – again, to ensure his safety. Sgt. Wetzel used no force and made clear that he was attempting to secure the safety of Mr. Gordon. In fact, Sgt. Wetzel spoke with Mr. Gordon while he was in the back of the vehicle, providing advice on how to avoid having his car towed and offering him a ride to Atlantic City, where Mr. Gordon said he was going.
When Sgt. Wetzel rolled down the window to hand Mr. Gordon a mask for his safety, Mr. Gordon suddenly opened the door from the outside and pushed it open, pinning the Trooper against the concrete barrier. After a brief struggle with the door, Mr. Gordon got out of the vehicle, and, ignoring Sgt. Wetzel’s verbal commands, jumped into the driver’s seat of the trooper’s vehicle, which was still running. At this point, physical force became necessary. Sergeant Wetzel pulled Mr. Gordon from the car, using pepper spray during the struggle. Unfortunately, Mr. Gordon was unfazed, and again ran to the driver’s seat of the Troop vehicle. This time, while Sgt. Wetzel again attempted to remove him, Mr. Gordon then reached for Sgt. Wetzel’s weapon. When Mr. Gordon opened the snap on the holster and began lifting the gun out of the holster, Sgt. Wetzel pivoted and shot him.
Sgt. Wetzel employed a full spectrum of non-lethal force, turning to lethal force only as a necessary last resort. He spoke politely to Mr. Gordon, making it clear that he was concerned with Mr. Gordon’s safety as well as the public safety.
This is not a one-sided account. The motor vehicle video confirms this. It shows Sgt. Wetzel making every effort to deescalate the situation, and in fact shows Sgt. Wetzel making every effort to prevent Mr. Gordon from harming himself. It shows Sgt. Wetzel issuing verbal commands, and Mr. Gordon ignoring those commands. Sgt. Wetzel did as he was trained – he began with verbal commands, and when those did not work, he used pepper spray. Only when Mr. Gordon tried again to steal the Troop vehicle – this time with impaired vision – and wrestled with Sgt. Wetzel in an attempt to take his gun, did Sgt. Wetzel shoot Mr. Gordon. Even then, Sgt. Wetzel first attempted to push Mr. Gordon away from his weapon while pulling him out of the Troop vehicle. It was not until the gun was being pulled from the holster – the point at which he reasonably believed his life was in danger – that Sgt. Wetzel discharged his weapon.
“Any loss of life is tragic, and this is no exception. It is clear, however, that Sergeant Wetzel’s use of force was reasonable under the circumstances,” said Detective Sergeant First Class Pete Stilianessis, President of the State Troopers NCO Association.
Stilianessis added: “It is important for the public to remember that each police interaction must be considered in its individual circumstances. I fully support our Troopers, like Sergeant Wetzel who followed his training, acted to deescalate the situation and did everything he could to avoid this outcome.”