Grand Jury Finds County Officer Acted in Self-Defense When He Shot a Little Egg Harbor Man in 2016
A state grand jury has voted not to file any criminal charges at the conclusion of its deliberations regarding the death of Patrick Fennell, 57, of Little Egg Harbor Township, who was fatally shot by a member of the Ocean County Regional SWAT Team during an armed standoff in July 2016.
The shooting 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. According to a detailed Feb. 13 press release from the AG’s office, after hearing testimony and evidence, the state grand jury voted “no true bill,” meaning it declined to indict the law enforcement officer who shot Fennell.
Fennell, a retired New York City detective, was armed with a revolver when he was shot in a wooded area behind his house on Sycamore Drive in Little Egg Harbor Township shortly after 10:30 p.m. on July 16, 2016.
The incident began earlier in the evening, when Fennell’s wife called 911 at 6:52 p.m. to report that her husband was drunk and that she had heard shots fired in their basement. She previously had confronted Fennell in the basement and grabbed some loose bullets that were near him as he loaded a revolver. She said on the 911 call that he pushed her away as she took the bullets and she was “really scared.” Township police were dispatched right after the 911 call. Fennell left the house with a silver .22-caliber revolver and was in a wooded area behind the home when police arrived.
Members of the Ocean County Regional SWAT Team were dispatched to the scene between 7:30 and 8 p.m. The SWAT team used a combination of flashlights, generator lights, rifle-mounted lights, night vision technology and thermal imaging technology to visually locate Fennell in the woods. Negotiators were brought to the scene, but they were unsuccessful in establishing communication with Fennell.
According to testimony, after those efforts failed, SWAT team members attempted to approach Fennell and contain him. Moving into the woods in formation and as they got close to Fennell, officers continued to try to speak to him and get him to cooperate, telling him they were there to help. Fennell did not cooperate at any time during the event.
The officer who shot Fennell, “Officer 1,” was among the officers in the formation who were closest to Fennell and directly in front of him when the shooting occurred. Officer 1 was armed with a rifle. The officers were within an estimated 20 to 25 yards of him when Fennell, who apparently had been lying down under brush and leaves, sat up on the ground. Multiple officers reported that they saw Fennell raise the silver revolver to a ready position, with the barrel pointed up.
SWAT team members, including Officer 1, commanded that Fennell show his hands and put the gun down. According to multiple officers, Fennell ignored the commands and instead pointed the gun in the direction of the officers directly in front of him, including Officer 1. Officer 1 then fired multiple rounds from his rifle at Fennell before pausing. Officers yelled that Fennell was “still moving,” and Officer 1 fired several more rounds at him. Officer 1 was the only officer who fired. He fired a total of eight rounds. Several officers reported that Fennell said something antagonistic before pointing his gun at the officers. Officer 1 reported that Fennell said, “Don’t come any closer. This is going to be a bad day.”
Officers moved in to secure Fennell once he stopped moving. He was lying on his back with wounds to the chest, right arm and hip area, and the revolver was between his legs. He was wearing only a bathing suit, a camouflage hat and boots, which were on the wrong feet. Emergency medical personnel were called forward to assist Fennell, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Fennell’s revolver, which was partially loaded, had been struck by a bullet and was damaged on the front-facing portion of the revolving chamber of the gun, consistent with the gun having been pointed directly at Officer 1. Two .22-caliber casings from bullets fired from Fennell’s revolver were found in the basement of the couple’s home. Toxicology tests performed in connection with the autopsy revealed that Fennell was intoxicated, with a blood alcohol concentration between 0.11 and 0.12 percent.
After considering the facts, evidence and testimony from the investigation by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, the state grand jury voted not to return an indictment. 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 those investigations. When a state- or county-level officer uses deadly force, the case is investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team. Team members operate independently of their usual chain of command and report directly to the director of the Division of Criminal Justice or a designee. The attorney general directive creates a presumption that all cases will be presented to a grand jury, consisting of 23 civilians, for independent review unless the undisputed facts establish that the use of force was justifiable under the law. —P.J.