|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 police-involved shooting in Upper Deerfield, N.J., in 2016 in which a state trooper shot and seriously wounded an armed homeowner after being dispatched to the man’s home to investigate a 911 call that erroneously was believed to have originated there. The man returned fire, slightly injuring a second trooper.
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 Major Crime 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 material facts showed that the use of force was justifiable under the law. The investigation included witness interviews and forensic analysis of the scene and other evidence.
The officer involved – “Trooper 1” – is a male trooper who was assigned to the New Jersey State Police Bridgeton Station. With regard to the specific factual circumstances of the incident, the investigation revealed that on July 29, 2016, at approximately 11:30 p.m., Trooper 1 and a second trooper – “Trooper 2” – were dispatched from the Bridgeton Station to a single-family residence on Centerton Road in Upper Deerfield Township, Cumberland County. They were sent there to investigate what was believed to be a 911 hang-up call placed from the home. For the reasons explained below, the troopers were sent to that location in error. Instead, the residents of the home, Gerald Sykes, 76, and his wife, were asleep in their first-floor bedroom when the troopers arrived in separate marked troop cars and pulled into the driveway. They left the cars running with headlights on, but did not activate their emergency lights. The home is set back about a quarter mile from the road and exterior lights were off, so the scene was dark except for the headlights. Both troopers wore uniforms consisting of black tactical pants with a gold stripe, a blue long-sleeved shirt with the State Police insignia on the shoulder, and a black tactical vest with reflective “State Police” markings across the chest and back. Trooper 2 also wore a State Police cap. Both wore utility belts holding their duty weapons, handcuffs, flashlights and ammunition.
Trooper 1 rang the doorbell and knocked on the front door. There was no response inside the home. Both troopers then walked to the back of the house. Trooper 2 walked onto a large back deck and was able to see into the couple’s bedroom through a sliding glass door. He saw Mrs. Sykes get out of bed and turn on a bedside light. The troopers heard a dog barking inside. Trooper 2, shouting through the glass, identified himself as a state trooper and said he was there to investigate a 911 hang-up. At this time, Trooper 1 was about 40 feet away checking a detached garage. Trooper 1 subsequently joined Trooper 2 on the deck as they tried to talk to Mrs. Sykes through the door. Both troopers stated that they had their flashlights on, and Trooper 1 recalled shining his flashlight on Trooper 2’s uniform to show Mrs. Sykes that they were in fact state troopers. As they were attempting to talk to Mrs. Sykes, Mr. Sykes got out of the bed and walked straight out of the bedroom into an interior hallway. The hallway appeared to lead to the living room, so the troopers moved to a second sliding glass door that led from the deck to the living room. The troopers said that the next time they saw Mr. Sykes, he was holding a long gun up to his shoulder. Trooper 1 said he also saw a revolver in Sykes’ hand, pressed against the side of the long gun. Both troopers reported that Mr. Sykes was a few feet away from them on the other side of the glass door, and he was pointing the long gun at Trooper 2’s chest. Mrs. Sykes said she believed her husband had the gun pointed down.
The troopers said they immediately drew their handguns, pointed them at Mr. Sykes, and began screaming “State Police” and “drop the gun.” They said Mr. Sykes then focused his attention on Trooper 1 and quickly pointed the long gun and revolver in his direction. At that point, Trooper 1 fired four rounds from his 9mm service handgun at Mr. Sykes. He saw that Mr. Sykes was hit and saw him go down to the ground. The troopers then retreated off the deck. Trooper 2 called “shots fired” over his radio and stopped at the bottom of the deck stairs, while Trooper 1 retreated farther toward the garage. The “shots fired” transmission occurred at 11:45 p.m. Trooper 2 was standing at the bottom of the deck stairs and was turning to see what Mr. Sykes was doing when he heard a gunshot and immediately felt pain in his left elbow as Mr. Sykes discharged his shotgun through the glass door. Trooper 2 transmitted “I’m hit” over his radio. The troopers then ran around opposite sides of the house and got into Trooper 2’s car. Trooper 1 made a turn in the driveway and drove to the road for the troopers to wait for back-up. Once on the road, they assessed Trooper 2’s injuries and determined that he was only grazed in the elbow and not seriously hurt. Also, there was a mark on the left shoulder of Trooper 2’s tactical vest which may have been a pellet strike.
Shortly after the shooting, 911 calls came in from Mr. Sykes and Mrs. Sykes’ daughter, who lived in the area. Mrs. Sykes could not make her phone work when trying to dial 911, so she called her daughter and told her that Mr. Sykes had been shot. Simultaneously, Mr. Sykes called 911 and told the operator that he had been shot by two “prowlers” and had returned fire. He told the 911 operator that he was shot twice in the chest and once in the hip. Mr. Sykes made his 911 call at 11:52 p.m. A dispatcher at the Cumberland County 911 center pieced together what Mr. Sykes was telling him with what he was hearing on State Police radios and transferred Mr. Sykes’ call to State Police dispatchers. The 911 operators at State Police then spoke to Mr. Sykes, had Mrs. Sykes place Mr. Sykes’ shotgun on the front porch, and had Mr. Sykes come out of the house onto the front lawn. The back-up troopers moved in once Mr. Sykes told the 911 operators he was outside and unarmed. The troopers temporarily handcuffed Mr. Sykes, but un-cuffed him once EMS arrived and started treating his wounds. Mr. Sykes was then airlifted to Cooper University Hospital, where he underwent surgery. Throughout his conversations with the 911 operators, Mr. Sykes repeatedly stated that he had been shot by intruders.
Members of the shooting response team interviewed Mrs. Sykes later that evening. Mrs. Sykes said she did not hear the doorbell or any knocking on the front door. She said she woke up to the sound of her dog barking at someone on the back deck. She roused Mr. Sykes, whom she described as groggy from being woken up. She said that his first reaction was to grab his shotgun from a closet. She did not notice Mr. Sykes retrieving the revolver, but saw later that the nightstand drawer, where the revolver was kept, was open. When she got up to look out of the sliding glass door, she saw two men with flashlights on the back deck. She stated that the men said they were police officers and asked if the Sykeses called 911. Mrs. Sykes said that she had trouble hearing the men clearly. She also stated that the men did not look like police officers to her. Knowing that both she and her husband were asleep and did not call 911, Mrs. Sykes did not believe that the men were police officers. Mrs. Sykes said that after Mr. Sykes went into the living room with his shotgun, she heard the men shouting that they were the police and repeated commands of “get down.” Mrs. Sykes was standing behind Mr. Sykes, but was farther back toward the bedroom. She said she heard several rapid gunshots and Mr. Sykes said he was hit. Mr. Sykes then returned fire once with the shotgun. When questioned how Mr. Sykes was holding the shotgun during the encounter, she said she thought he had it pointed down, not at the troopers. The scene was examined by forensic experts. Mr. Sykes’ shotgun was found on the front porch where Mrs. Sykes placed it at the direction of 911 operators. Mr. Sykes’ loaded revolver, which was not fired, was found on the living room floor. There were four small holes and one large hole in the sliding glass door and a window directly next to it.
An investigation into the original 911 call, conducted with assistance from the New Jersey Office of Emergency Telecommunications, revealed there was no 911 hang-up. A 911 caller had reached the Cumberland County 911 center, and a dispatcher there tried to transfer him to State Police dispatchers. Before successfully transferring the call, however, the county dispatcher hit a wrong button and initiated a transfer to the Vineland 911 center. The county dispatcher quickly canceled the transfer, but the dispatch terminal in Vineland registered a 911 call lasting just two seconds. A Vineland dispatcher interpreted this as a 911 hang-up. The Sykeses’ address was identified as the source of the call at the Vineland 911 center because there is a cell tower on the Sykeses’ property. The Vineland 911 system ordinarily handles calls only from landlines in Vineland, not cell calls. Cell calls are handled by the county 911 center, which has special procedures in place to properly locate cell callers. The Vineland dispatcher called the State Police Bridgeton Station and reported a 911 hang-up from the Sykeses’ address.
This matter was reviewed by Director Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice and all portions of the Attorney General’s Directive on Police-Use-of-Force Investigations were complied with. After analyzing the findings of the investigation, Director Honig concluded that the undisputed facts indicate that Trooper 1’s conduct in firing on Sykes was justifiable under the law. The facts and circumstances reasonably led Trooper 1 to believe that his actions were immediately necessary to protect himself and Trooper 2. While there is a dispute about whether Mr. Sykes pointed the shotgun at the troopers before Trooper 1 fired, there is no dispute that Mr. Sykes was armed, did not comply with troopers’ commands, and approached to within a few feet of the troopers with his shotgun and revolver. An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes that it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
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