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Unarmed Black New Jersey Man Steps Outside to Retrieve Bottle of Tea from Vehicle, Winds Up Paralyzed After Being Ambushed By Plainclothes Officers

An unarmed Black man sitting in his car outside of his home was shot by a police officer, leaving the majority of his body paralyzed. Jajuan Henderson, 29, is now suing the city and members of the police force for damages incurred by the incident.

Jajuan Henderson (Family photo)

A copy of the lawsuit, secured by the Atlanta Black Star, names the city of Trenton; the director of Trenton police, Steve E. Wilson; and the four officers from the scene of the incident, listed only by their initials (M.G., C.H., J.C., and J.L.), as defendants and alleges the arresting officers used excessive force, negligence, and racial profiling during the encounter.

The Burlington City native was parallel parked outside of his home on Feb. 12, according to the filing, when four police officers are said to have boxed his car in, ambushed him with a fusillade of bullets, and left him with injuries that caused him to be paralyzed from the chest down.

Richard Smith, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, introduced the complaint during a press conference, saying, “This incident and incidents like it are all too familiar. These officers — sworn to protect and serve all —rushed to execution. These officers devalued the life of another Black man.”

Despite it being a little past midnight, Henderson said he went outside to retrieve a bottle of iced tea from the vehicle that he accidentally left earlier. He decided to get into the car and sit.

As he “sat lawfully parked in a car with the engine turned off when an unidentified dark car approached and parked next to him, boxing him in,” the filing claims. “A group of men, fully masked and in dark plain clothes, then jumped out of this mysterious vehicle and began yelling at Jajuan. As many others would do in this escalating situation, Jajuan used his cell phone to call for support.”

Civil rights attorney Greg Zeff contends the men were actually members of Trenton police’s Street Crimes Unit and did not identify themselves as they approached his client’s vehicle, even though they were all in plain civilian clothes. Henderson was confused and tried to call for aid.

Shortly after arriving, one of the officers smashed the window of the car. .

“This group of men, appearing as any other group of dangerous criminals from a horror movie, turned out to be from the Trenton Police Department,” the lawyer wrote in the document. “A Black man sitting in a car at midnight while on a cell phone was all the unidentified police needed to smash the driver’s side window.”

Henderson was “unarmed, nonthreatening, and minding his own business,” when the police “used lethal force” and shot him “in the neck.”

Police reports state the officers stopped the man as “a part of a motor vehicle stop,” even though he was parked and “the engine of the car … was turned off.”

The cops acknowledged Henderson was talking to someone on the phone when they approached him. The report also admitted one of the badges broke the Black man’s window. After the glass shattered, police noted Henderson turned on his car and “attempted to flee.”

The lawyer stated in the claim Henderson could not get away because by this time multiple police cars and a utility pole were blocking him. It was then that “at least one” of the officers, according to the police report, shot the man four times — including a bullet shot(s) “that struck his spinal cord rendering him paralyzed him from the chest down.”

Henderson still maintains he had no idea at the onset of the confrontation that the men were police.

NJ.com reports that Henderson was charged with four aggravated assault charges, including trying to run the cops over with his vehicle. The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office has confirmed these charges have since been dropped. Bodycam from the police officers that night could not easily substantiate those claims. He still faces resisting arrest and obstruction charges. 

After initially being treated at a Trenton hospital, he was transferred to a hospital in Philadelphia.

Henderson’s mother, Gia Henderson shared at the press conference that she had already lost one son, and after hearing about Jajuan being shot, her “heart almost broke.”

“We want justice for Jajuan,” she said. “We want change, transparency, and accountability.”

The lawsuit alleges the officers used an unreasonable degree of force regarding Henderson, made no efforts to de-escalate the events of the night, nor did they make any effort to “preserve and protect human life and the safety of all persons.”

It further states the officers failed to follow the New Jersey Attorney General Guidelines on the use of force and deadly force during that early February morning.

In addition to announcing the lawsuit, the NAACP and Henderson’s lawyers are calling on Mercer County to release the officer’s bodycam footage. According to the 2018 New Jersey Attorney General directive, the footage should have been released to the public approximately 20 days after the incident. 

No one from Henderson’s camp has seen the videos.

According to a detective from the county who saw the bodycam videos, they show a very different account than communicated in the lawsuit and aligns with the police report of the incident.

Their report states Henderson was being uncooperative when they initiated their motor vehicle stop. The officers allege he would not provide identification such as a driver’s license, registration, or insurance documents. The affidavit notes his windows were also partially rolled down and he was on the phone when they approached.

In the report, Henderson was said to be fidgeting with something inside a passenger compartment and under seats. It also claims he ignored the commands of the police, prompting one officer to smash the window and the father to turn on the car to “drive away.” This account mentions Henderson crashing into a car behind him.

Officials stated after the shooting, all four were placed on routine administrative duty. 

The investigation of the officers’ use of deadly force has been transferred out of Mercer County because of conflict between the police department and the prosecutor’s office. The neighboring Union County will review the case. 

Henderson is suing for compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, costs, fees, and any other appropriate relief. 

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