|TRENTON – In compliance with the Attorney General’s Directive on Police-Use-of-Force Investigations, this public statement is being issued on the findings of the investigation into a fatal police shooting in Ventnor, N.J., on Oct. 3, 2016 in which members of the Atlantic County Emergency Response Team and other local police officers fatally shot John Fetter III, 49, who was armed with a handgun, following a standoff that began with a domestic violence incident.
Under the Attorney General’s Directive on Police-Use-of-Force Investigations, the incident was investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, made up of investigators from the Division of Criminal Justice and the New Jersey State Police Homicide Unit. As a result of the investigation, Director Elie Honig of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice determined that presentation of the police-involved shooting to a grand jury was not required under the directive, because the undisputed facts showed that the use of force was justified under the law. The investigation included witness interviews, forensic analysis of the scene, an autopsy and other evidence.
With regard to the specific factual circumstances of the incident, the investigation revealed that Fetter was fatally shot by members of the Atlantic County Emergency Response Team and other local police officers at approximately 7:40 p.m. outside the residence where he lived with his parents in the 700 block of North Burghley Avenue in Ventnor. The events leading to the shooting began at 6:22 p.m., when Fetter’s mother called 911 to report that Fetter was drunk, fighting with his father, and armed with a long gun. When two officers from the Ventnor Police Department arrived at the two-story house, Fetter’s father, who was outside, reported that Fetter, who was still inside with his mother, was armed with a shotgun and had fired two shots inside the house. As Fetter’s mother exited, another shotgun blast was heard inside the house and the mother fell down the front porch steps. Fetter’s father picked up Fetter’s mother while an officer provided cover. The parents were removed from danger.
The two Ventnor officers positioned their SUVs in front of Fetter’s house in the street, and an officer from the Longport Police Department arrived to assist. Fetter’s father was handcuffed and removed further down the street because he continued to approach the SUVs despite orders to stay back. The officers repeatedly called out to Fetter, telling him to come out unarmed. However, at approximately 6:45 p.m., Fetter fired his shotgun out of an upstairs window toward the officers. One officer returned fire, firing two rounds from a rifle through the window. Fetter shouted that he wanted to talk to a specific officer from the Ventnor Police who had acted as a mediator during previous domestic violence incidents involving Fetter’s family. That officer arrived and established phone communication with Fetter, but he was not able to convince Fetter to surrender peacefully. Fetter expressed that he wanted to die and knew the SWAT team was coming. He said that if he could not “do it” then “you guys will have to do it.”
Members of the Atlantic County Emergency Response Team arrived with a Bearcat armored truck. As the SWAT team was positioning the Bearcat near the SUVs so team members could safely exit the vehicle, Fetter pointed a gun out of the living room window of the home. Witness statements differed as to whether Fetter fired the gun. Two officers believed he did. A third officer, the one who previously fired at Fetter, reported that he heard one of the officers say “gun.” That third officer fired two rounds from his rifle at Fetter. Fetter reportedly yelled, “You missed me.”
The SWAT members exited the Bearcat, and one officer from the SWAT team indicated that he fired a shot at Fetter when Fetter again appeared at a window and pointed a gun toward him. Fetter subsequently emerged from the front door, holding a black .22-caliber handgun, pointed down in front of his body. Almost all of the officers immediately began shouting “Drop the gun.” Fetter instead raised the handgun and pointed it at the officers. Seven officers then fired their weapons at Fetter.
The officers stopped firing after Fetter fell to the ground. Back-up SWAT officers soon arrived and relieved the officers who were involved in the shooting. The back-up officers approached Fetter, rendered first aid, and secured the house. Fetter was pronounced dead at the scene once EMS personnel arrived and took over the first aid efforts.
An autopsy revealed a total of 10 gunshot wounds to Fetter’s body. One shot penetrated Fetter’s chest and did substantial damage to his lungs and heart. The remaining shots were to his extremities and buttocks and came from various angles. Toxicology results showed that Fetter’s blood-alcohol content was 0.258 percent.
This matter was reviewed by Director Honig and all portions of the Attorney General’s Directive on Police-Use-of-Force Investigations that were in effect during the course of the investigation were complied with. After analyzing all of the facts and circumstances of this incident within the context of the Attorney General’s Use-of-Force Policy, Director Honig concluded that the officers who fired on Fetter used an acceptable level of force. The facts and circumstances reasonably led the officers to believe their actions were immediately necessary to protect themselves and their fellow officers. An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
In New Jersey, all investigations into police deadly force incidents are governed by an Attorney General directive – issued in 2006 and strengthened in 2015 – which establishes strict procedures for conducting these investigations. When a state- or county-level officer uses deadly force, the case is investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, made up of deputy attorneys general and detectives of the Division of Criminal Justice, as well as detectives of the State Police Homicide Unit, all of whom operate independently of their usual chain of command and report directly to the Director of the Division of Criminal Justice or a designee.
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