Last week’s fatal shooting of a gunman after a chase from Pleasantville to Atlantic City will result in a loss of manpower for two local police departments already grappling with how to get more officers on the streets.
Three Pleasantville police officers have been placed on paid administrative leave after police shot and killed Antoquan Watson, 27, of Williamstown. The loss of those officers — as the investigation is completed and as the officers’ condition after the traumatic event is evaluated — compounds the loss of four officers still out of work from a fatal police shooting last April and has led Pleasantville to seek help from the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office to patrol its streets.
“I’ve lost sleep since last April with four officers out. I’m concerned about my guys being out there. It’s something that I and my business administrator worry about. It’s not just the residents I’m concerned about, it’s my officers out there,” Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle said.
In Atlantic City, five police officers will also be placed on administrative leave, bringing the department’s manpower below 300 officers. The city and its police union have agreed on a minimum staffing level of 330 officers.
Mayor Don Guardian called the shooting an unfortunate incident.
“I believe the chief (Henry White) has a comfort level that we are able to continue doing what we’ve been doing as far as patrols,” Guardian said. “He’s reviewed it and made some changes to reallocate officers who were assigned to desk duties and other assignments so we don’t have any less officers on the street. There will be no reduction in patrols with the five officers out on administrative leave.”
The manpower issues are concerning to police and officials in both towns.
“Unfortunately in this incident we will have a total of eight officers out in two towns and that raises concerns,” said Officer Paul Barbere, president of Atlantic City Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 24.
A police officer “whose action(s) or use of force in an official capacity results in death or serious physical injury, (will) be removed from line-duty assignment, pending an administrative review; or investigation, where applicable,” according to the accreditation program standards for the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.
The rule is intended to protect the community’s interest when someone may have exceeded the scope of his or her authority, as well as to protect employees who may have exceeded their authority from possible confrontations with the community. Last year, both the Pleasantville and Atlantic City police departments received accreditation from the police chiefs group.
Ray Theriault, president of PBA Mainland Local 77, said that with the latest loss of officers, Pleasantville “can’t even staff the streets adequately right now.”
“It’s a very dangerous situation. The city is trying to help by doing the right thing and hiring, and they were hoping to get ahead, and now they’re behind the eight ball again,” said Theriault, who is also an Egg Habor Township detective.
In September, a grand jury found four Pleasantville police officers were justified when they fatally shot 19-year-old Alexis Yamil Perez in front of his home in April 2013, but they have not yet been medically cleared to return to duty, Tweedle said.
The four officers still on leave from last year’s shooting have up to a year to return to work, said Tweedle.
“And just as we were approaching that deadline where the officers would either come back to work or we would start hiring, another shooting takes place,” Tweedle said.
“We understand our predicament, believe me we do. We’ve been dealing with it all along over the last year. Thank God we’ve had help from the Sheriff’s Department and Prosecutor’s Office and now we’re in the process of hiring right now,” Tweedle said.
After last year’s shooting on April 22, the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Department assisted with patrols, using members of its roughy 100-member department in Pleasantville, said Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles.
Balles said Friday that he has been in discussions with Pleasantville police, which is putting together a plan for patrols moving forward to help again.
“If the need arises we will be there to assist them,” Balles said.
Tweedle said the city is also working to expedite the hiring process. Four candidates have been interviewed over the last several weeks and there are officers calling from other municipalities who want to work for Pleasantville.
As of September, the Pleasantville police force was made up of 46 members — seven of whom were not active, according to data from the Pleasantville Police Department.
Atlantic City is also dealing with the loss of manpower.
Last April, a grand jury found that an Atlantic City police officer who fatally shot 18-year-old Derreck Mack in December 2012 was justified.
That officer did not return to work, said Atlantic City Police Sgt. Monica McMenanmin.
Barbere said there’s no set timelines for getting officers back to work.
“Each case is different, so there’s no telling how long an officer could be out. There are a lot of variables. First and foremost is the officer’s condition, both mentally and physically, from such a traumatic event. Then there is the thorough investigation itself that has to be conducted,” he said.
But the fact that city is operating with fewer than 300 police officers is dangerous and concerning for the union, officers and public, and the administration at some point has to determine how the force can accomplish their mission at these staff numbers, Barbere said.
“Our staffing level is at 308, if you don’t count this incident. And now we’re going to have another five go out. That brings us to 303 and there are other officers who are out injured from other incidents, so we’ll be well under 300,” he said.
Watson was shot dead on an Atlantic City main street about 20 minutes after he brandished a gun at a Pleasantville restaurant and led police on a chase through parts of Egg Harbor Township and Ventnor.
Watson was allegedly shooting out of his black sport utility vehicle. In Atlantic City, his SUV was bumped and swerved onto the curb outside the Tanger Outlet stores on Atlantic Avenue just past Missouri Avenue at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway.
Witnesses said he got out of the SUV and started shooting.
It was then that police returned fire and Watson was killed.
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