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Adam Rizvi, Trenton, NJ, December 27, 2019, TIO: In compliance with the Attorney General’s Independent Prosecutor Directive on Police Use-of-Force Investigations, this public statement is being issued on the findings of an investigation into the death of Stephen Cogelia, 32, of Hardwick, N.J., who was fatally shot by a New Jersey state trooper on June 12, 2018.
This investigation was conducted by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, in accordance with the Independent Prosecutor Directive, issued in 2006, strengthened in 2015, and expanded in December 2019 (“the Independent Prosecutor Directive”).
The investigation included interviews of civilian witnesses; a review of footage from troopers’ body-worn cameras; examination of evidence from the scene and ballistic evidence; and autopsy results from the medical examiner. As a result of the investigation, OPIA Director Thomas Eicher determined that presentation of the police-involved shooting to a grand jury was not required under the directive because the undisputed facts indicated the use of deadly force by the New Jersey state trooper (“Trooper 1”) was justified under the law.
The events leading to the shooting began shortly after 5 p.m. on June 12, 2018, when state troopers, including Trooper 1, were called to a home on Sunset Lake Road in Hardwick on a report of a domestic dispute. At the scene, troopers interviewed occupants of the house, including Stephen Cogelia (“Cogelia”) and Cogelia’s father. The father and another family member reported that Cogelia had made threats to kill the father, saying “I ought to get a knife and gut you.”
The troopers advised Cogelia to leave the house, and the father went to State Police Hope Station to report the threats and obtain a temporary restraining order (TRO) against Cogelia. While the father was at the State Police barracks seeking the TRO, a relative called him to report that Cogelia had returned to the home and was threatening to kill other members of the family.
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Shortly after 9 p.m., state troopers responded to the home again to serve Cogelia with the TRO and investigate the new threats. Five troopers responded. When they entered the home and called out to Cogelia, he shouted at them from upstairs, cursing and yelling “Get out of my house!” When Trooper 1 requested that Cogelia come downstairs, Cogelia shouted, “You come into this bedroom boys, it’s going to be some major [expletive] problems. I am standing my [expletive] ground!” The troopers went to the second floor, where the doors to the rooms were closed.
Video footage from Trooper 1’s body-worn camera shows that when Trooper 1, accompanied by the other troopers, opened the door of a bedroom, he encountered Cogelia, who was armed with a hunting knife and standing behind the door. Cogelia was approximately five feet away from Trooper 1 and was holding the knife over his head with the blade pointed at the troopers. Trooper 1 ordered Cogelia to drop the knife. Cogelia did not comply. Trooper 1 discharged his Glock 19 (9mm) service weapon four times, striking Cogelia in the left arm and torso. Troopers rendered aid to Cogelia until medical personnel arrived. Cogelia was pronounced dead at the scene.
After the shooting, Trooper 1 stated to members of the Shooting Response Team that he believed he was in imminent danger when he fired his weapon at Cogelia. The statement made by Trooper 1 is consistent with the body-worn camera footage, the forensic and ballistic evidence collected in the investigation, and the autopsy results.
During the investigation, detectives interviewed an employer of Cogelia, who reported that on the day of the shooting, Cogelia had spoken to him about “killing his father and death by cop.” That man said he counseled Cogelia to move out of the house, but he did not call the police because he did not know if Cogelia was serious.
After analyzing all of the facts and circumstances, Director Eicher concluded that the trooper’s use of force was justified under the law. 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. Law enforcement officers are taught in Use of Force Training that distance from the threat is one of many factors to be considered when using deadly force.
In determining whether there was an issue of material fact as to whether Trooper 1’s belief was reasonable, Director Eicher examined what Trooper 1 knew at the time he pulled the trigger, specifically: 1) Cogelia had threatened to “gut” his father earlier in the day; 2) Cogelia verbally threatened the troopers; 3) The knife, a deadly weapon, was raised above Cogelia’s head in a threatening manner directed at the troopers; 4) Cogelia was approximately five feet from the troopers; 5) Cogelia failed to comply with Trooper 1’s order to drop the knife; and 6) Cogelia saw that the troopers were in uniform.
The directive provides that unless the undisputed facts indicate the use of force was justified under the law, the circumstances of the incident must be presented to a grand jury, composed of 16 to 23 civilians, for its independent review.
The Independent Prosecutor Directive is posted on the Attorney General’s website. Contents are as per the press release.