A Black man in New Jersey grabbing iced tea from a car was shot and paralyzed by plain-clothed officers last month, according to a lawsuit alleging excessive force, negligence and racial profiling.
Jajuan R. Henderson, 29, was getting the drink from a Saturn Ion parked outside of his home shortly after midnight on Feb. 12 in Trenton, per the civil suit filed Wednesday in Mercer County.
That’s when a group of men in dark clothing and masks driving an unidentified vehicle boxed in the Saturn, which was parallel parked, according to the lawsuit. Henderson did not know who the men were.
Once out of their vehicle, the men began yelling and Henderson then attempted to use his phone to call for help, the suit said.
One of the men smashed the driver’s side window and Henderson was shot four times, the lawsuit said.
“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 lawsuit said.
“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. Despite being unarmed, nonthreatening, and minding his own business, the police proceeded to use lethal force and shoot Jajuan in the neck. It is a miracle Jajuan survived.”
Henderson is now paralyzed from the chest down, the suit said.
Named as defendants are the city of Trenton, the director of Trenton police, Steve E. Wilson, and four officers only identified by their initials who were on scene.
Wilson did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday. A city spokesperson declined comment on the lawsuit, citing the “pending litigation.”
Derek Demeri, an attorney representing Henderson, told NBC News on Friday there are many unknowns in the case, such as the plain-clothed officers’ objective that night.
According to the suit, there is body camera footage that has not been released to the public. The identities of the responding officers have also been withheld, the suit said.
A 2018 attorney general directive says video footage should be released publicly, when requested, once the initial use-of-force is substantially complete — usually within 20 days, NJ.com reported.
“It’s very frustrating. The family has a right to transparency in this process,” Demeri said.
A Trenton spokesperson, Tim Carroll — speaking on behalf of the city and police department — declined to comment beyond saying an investigation was ongoing.
“The City of Trenton has fully complied with the required Attorney General’s review of the February 12 incident, and await the findings,” Carroll said.
The state Attorney General’s Office has deferred a separate probe into the officers’ actions to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office because of a conflict of interest, the Mercer County prosecutor’s spokesperson said.
Demeri said in addition to being paralyzed, Henderson was charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice. The aggravated assault charges, four counts, were eventually dropped by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, Demeri said.
A spokesperson with the prosecutor’s office said Friday the office is still prosecuting Henderson for resisting arrest and obstruction. The spokesperson did not elaborate on why the aggravated assault charges were dismissed.
An affidavit filed against Henderson provided by Mercer prosecutors details the police perspective on what preceded the shooting.
The affidavit said that Trenton police’s street crime units, 511 and 513, attempted to conduct a motor vehicle stop on the Saturn the night of the incident.
Henderson, the affidavit said, refused to cooperate with detectives’ orders to roll down the window and then exit the vehicle. He also could not provide a driver’s license or proof of the Saturn’s registration and insurance, the affidavit said.
Henderson’s lawsuit said the car belonged to the mother of his child.
Henderson also refused orders to stop reaching under the backseat, which prompted an officer to break the driver’s window, the affidavit said. Henderson then, according to the affidavit, turned on the ignition and attempted to flee, striking two parked cars while officers were in close proximity.
Henderson’s lawsuit said it’s unclear if he turned on the ignition, but fleeing was impossible, given the car was boxed in between vehicles on three sides with a fourth side blocked by a utility pole on the car’s passenger side.
No officers were injured. The four officers were placed on administrative leave, according to a county prosecutor’s statement from last month.
Demeri said Henderson is a fighter who is working through rehabilitation and trying to gain mobility. But he has a long road ahead.
Given the circumstances, Demeri said his client acted like most people would.
“Anyone in that situation would be very frightened for their life.”