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 an investigation into an officer’s use of deadly force during an encounter in May with Tyleeb Blake-Reese, who allegedly fired at law enforcement officers inside his residence in Trenton and subsequently fatally wounded an innocent bystander who was outside, leading to a 35-hour standoff with police. The officer fired at Reese with a handgun inside the building, but neither Reese nor any other person was struck by the officer’s rounds.
Under the Attorney General’s Directive, the incident – specifically the use of force by the officer – 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, and other evidence.
With regard to the specific factual circumstances of the incident, the investigation revealed that on May 10, 2017, shortly after 6:30 a.m., members of the United States Marshal’s New York/New Jersey Regional Task Force attempted to serve a fugitive arrest warrant on Reese at his townhome at 343 Centre Street in Trenton because Reese had failed to register as a convicted sex offender. Six task force members were directly involved in the attempt to serve the warrant on Reese, including “Officer 1,” a sheriff’s officer who was the only officer who discharged a gun during the incident. The officers knew that Reese was in the residence, and after repeatedly knocking at the door and identifying themselves as police officers, three officers entered the residence and began to climb the stairs to the second floor.
Officer 1 was in the lead holding a ballistic shield in front of him. He was followed by Officers 2 and 3. When the three officers were about halfway up the stairs, Reese allegedly fired two shotgun blasts at them from the second floor landing. The shots struck Officer 1’s ballistic shield, propelling all three officers down the stairs from the force of the blasts. Officer 1 landed on the floor with the shield on top of him. He heard a third shotgun blast but was unsure where that shot hit, because there was a cloud of plaster and dust that reduced visibility. At this time, Officer 1 fired his service handgun, a .40-caliber Glock, at least twice toward Reese. No round hit Reese or anyone else. The three officers then retreated from the residence into the street, where a fourth officer who had not entered the building was waiting.
A fifth officer was inside the building toward the rear of the first floor when the exchange of gunfire occurred. He exited through a back door to a yard and driveway, where he met a sixth officer. Reese allegedly came out the back door and fired a shotgun twice at those two officers. Neither was hit. Reese then returned to the front of the building and allegedly began shooting from an upper floor at Officers 1, 2 and 3, who had taken cover behind vehicles on the street in front of the residence.
At this time, the bystander, Robert L. Powell Jr., 56, who lived in the neighborhood, was walking down the street in front of Reese’s residence. Officer 3 warned Powell to get down and take cover behind a vehicle, but Powell kept crawling toward the officers. Reese continued to fire from one of the upper floors, striking and fatally wounding Powell. Powell was struck with projectiles in the torso, thigh and ankle. An autopsy determined that the shot that struck Powell in the torso lacerated a lung and his heart, and the shot that struck the thigh hit an artery and shattered his thigh bone. Officers 1 and 3, at great personal risk, pulled Powell down the street, out of the line of fire. Meanwhile, a SWAT team from the Trenton Police Department and the New Jersey State Police TEAMS Unit responded to calls for assistance. Upon their arrival, the Task Force officers were pulled off the line, with Officers 1, 2 and 3 being taken to Capital Health Regional Medical Center for treatment of graze wounds and contusions.
Hostage negotiators were called in, and a 35-hour standoff ensued. Reese’s friends and family members were present and encouraged him to surrender. For a day and a half those efforts were unsuccessful, with Reese firing random shots in the direction of officers through the night. After Reese knocked a hole in an upstairs party wall between his townhome and the adjacent home, two state troopers were deployed to insert a camera and robot into Reese’s home. They were in a second-floor bathroom of the adjacent home, carrying ballistic shields, when Reese allegedly fired two shotgun blasts through the bathroom door, striking the shield of one of the troopers. The troopers were not injured and withdrew.
Negotiators maintained contact with Reese, and at 5 p.m. on May 11, Reese surrendered to authorities without incident, was arrested and taken into custody. On Aug. 9, Reese was indicted by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office on charges of murder, seven counts of attempted murder, seven counts of aggravated assault, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, burglary and resisting arrest.
This matter was reviewed by Director Honig and all portions of the Attorney General’s Directive on Police-Use-of-Force Investigations were complied with. After analyzing all of the facts and circumstances within the context of the Attorney General’s Use-of-Force Policy, Director Honig concluded that the officer who fired on Reese used an acceptable level of force. The facts and circumstances reasonably led the officer to believe his actions were immediately necessary to protect himself and his 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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