Hackensack police cleared after killing 2 men in suicide-by-cop incidents
HACKENSACK — Three city police officers have been cleared of wrongdoing in two separate shooting deaths of suicidal men who threatened them with knives.
Reports detailing the investigations into the two incidents were released Thursday by Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal more than a year after the shootings.
Officer Hisham Sheikh was cleared by Grewal’s office, which investigated the June 11, 2015, shooting of Raymond Peralta-Lantigua, 22. Prosecutors chose not to present the case to a grand jury, finding there was no need.
Prosecutors, however, did present the May 21, 2015, shooting death of Elvin Diaz, 24, to a Bergen County grand jury, which declined to press charges against Sgt. Miguel Molina and Officer Elvin Hernandez.
Police officers in both cases were not wearing body cameras at the time of the incidents, but Peralta-Lantigua's shooting was caught on surveillance camera and both shootings were witnessed by multiple people.
The two reports also do not address statements made by relatives who witnessed the incidents and faulted officers for the shootings.
Peralta-Lantigua was shot outside his mother’s home on Johnson Avenue after walking toward Sheikh while holding an 8-inch-blade knife and refusing the officer’s orders to drop it.
Police said Peralta-Lantigua responded by shouting “the knife is me!”
Sheikh fired two rounds, one hitting his upper torso while the other bullet grazed him.
Police had been called to the home by his mother, who said he had broken a television and hit her. Police found Peralta-Lantigua outside the home on the porch and said he threw rocks at one of the two cop cars that arrived.
The officer told investigators that he did not have his gun out when he got out the car because he always tried to approach emotionally disturbed people in a friendly manner in order to de-escalate the situation.
The shooting was seen by four witnesses who all corroborated all or parts of the officer’s version of events, prosecutors said.
A month earlier, police were called to Diaz’s Temple Avenue residence about 1:30 p.m. because he had repeatedly failed to check in with his parole officer.
The two officers who eventually fired 11 rounds at Diaz already knew him, prosecutors said. Molina had dated Diaz’s mother while Hernandez was a distant relative.
Diaz however, brandished a meat cleaver when he saw the officers in his kitchen.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Diaz was quoted as saying to the officers. “You better f---ing kill me before I f---ing you!”
“I know how this works,” he continued. “Bullet to the head. Bullet to the head. Come on. F---ing kill me, boy, before I f---ing you!”
As a third officer called the SWAT team for help, cops say Diaz lunged at them. One officer fired nine rounds while the other fired two. Diaz fell with the knife under him and cops handcuffed him on the ground. He died at Hackensack University Medical Center at 2:48 p.m.
Grewal’s report says none of the officers were carrying Tasers.
After the shooting, Diaz’s relatives criticized police for not allowing his brother and mother to calm him down. The prosecutor’s report mentions that police kept two relatives in another room but the report does not say that the relatives requested to try to calm Diaz.
Peralta-Lantigua’s grieving mother also faulted police.
“Many children need help,” she was quoted as saying by The Record newspaper last year. “We call police to assist us, not to kill.”
Shootings by municipal police are investigated by county prosecutors, who are required to publish public reports detailing their investigations, even when officers are cleared of wrongdoing. Prosecutors' decisions and reports are reviewed by the state Attorney General's Office.
The law allows cops to use lethal force when they believe that such force “is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present occasion.”
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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email email@example.com.