Union County Prosecutor’s Office Deems Police Officers’ Use of Force During July 2016 Vehicle Pursuit Legally Justified

The Union County Prosecutor’s Office (UCPO) has completed its investigation into the use of deadly force on July 9, 2016 by a Union County Police Department corporal and two Elizabeth Police Department officers, and has concluded that the use of deadly force was legally justified.

UCPO determined that it is not necessary to present this matter to the Grand Jury because there are no material facts in dispute regarding the lawfulness of the use of force. The investigation was conducted in accordance with the July 28, 2015 New Jersey Office of the Attorney General Supplemental Law Enforcement Directive Regarding Uniform Statewide Procedures and Best Practices for Conducting Police Use of Force Investigations (Directive). Pursuant to the Directive, the Attorney General’s Office conducted an independent review of the use of force and agreed with UCPO’s determination that there are no material facts in dispute and that the use of deadly force by the Officer in this case was justified. The Attorney General’s Office concurred with UCPO that it is not necessary to present this matter to the Grand Jury.

UCPO’s Shooting Response Team conducted an investigation wherein forensic evidence was collected, police reports were submitted and reviewed, photographs were taken, and witness statements were obtained. Each officer involved also provided a statement regarding the incident.

The incident occurred shortly before midnight on Friday, July 9, 2016, when a man later identified as Danny Clyde Williams, a.k.a. Danny Clyde Burnam, 57, was driving a Freightliner cab-style commercial tractor in the area of First Street and Elizabeth Avenue in Elizabeth. Williams thereafter struck a vehicle, causing heavy damage to its driver’s side. The uninjured driver of the struck vehicle attempted to get Williams to stop, but instead he headed northwest on Elizabeth Avenue.

An off-duty Union County Police Department corporal (Officer 1) spotted Williams driving erratically and attempted to intervene after his vehicle was nearly struck by the Freightliner truck. Officer 1 approached the truck near the intersection of Broad Street and Elizabeth Avenue, stood on the truck’s running board, and identified himself as a police officer to Williams.  Officer 1 then directed Williams to stop his vehicle. 

Williams thereafter made eye contact with Officer 1 and announced in a profane manner that he was refusing to stop. Williams then rapidly accelerated his vehicle, throwing Officer 1 from the running board.  

Fearing for his life and the lives of others, Officer 1 fired a single round from his service weapon into one of the truck’s front tires, intending to disable the truck’s operability and apprehend Williams before he stuck other vehicles and/or physically harmed other individuals in the area. 

Williams’s truck, however, was not disabled and continued to travel north at a high rate of speed along Broad Street, where Williams struck numerous parked and moving vehicles. When Williams approached the area of North Broad Street and Parker Road, two Elizabeth Police Department officers (Officer 2 and Officer 3) approached the front of the truck in full uniform with their firearms drawn. While walking only four to five car lengths away from the front driver’s side of the truck, Officer 2 and Officer 3 repeatedly and loudly identified themselves as police officers as Williams revved his engine and took off again into traffic. Officer 2 and Officer 3 jumped out of the way to avoid being struck by the truck, and thereafter fired their service weapons multiple times, striking Williams and his truck.

Despite their efforts, Williams evaded the officers, striking a minivan with four occupants, including a pregnant woman, her husband, and their two young daughters in the process. After running towards the truck to apprehend Williams, Officer 2 and Officer 3 yet again directed Williams to stop his truck. Williams ignored this direction and continued driving, resulting in Officer 2 and Officer 3 firing their service weapons once again.

Approximately one half-mile north of that area, near the intersection of North Avenue and Newark Avenue, Williams collided head-on with another vehicle, killing an adult male passenger, 24-year-old Elizabeth resident Jeffrey Oakley, and injuring the two other occupants.  A forensic examination of data retrieved from the Freightliner revealed that Williams was traveling at nearly 70 miles per hour at the time of impact, and that the throttle on the truck was at 100 percent (i.e., the gas pedal was fully depressed).

Williams was arrested at that time and found to be suffering from a single gunshot wound to his left lower leg. The investigation into this incident revealed that a total of 18 rounds were fired at the truck. 

Williams, who has known addresses in California and Colorado, was indicted in November 2017, charged with first-degree aggravated manslaughter, second-degree vehicular homicide, two counts of second-degree aggravated assault, four counts of second-degree eluding police, and a single count of third-degree aggravated assault. He remains awaiting trial.

Applying the relevant statutes and the Attorney General’s Directive to the undisputed material facts outlined above, the use of deadly force by the Officer was justified pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4(a), Use of Force in Self-Protection, and N.J.S.A. 2C:3-5, Use of Force for the Protection of Other Persons. N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4(a) states that “the use of force upon or towards another person is justifiable when the actor reasonably believes 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.” 

Furthermore, N.J.S.A. 2C:3-5 sets forth a three-part test to determine if a use of force is justified to protect a third person. First, the actor’s actions would have been justified under N.J.S.A. 2C:3-4 to protect himself from the same injury that the third person was about to suffer. N.J.S.A. 2C:3-5a(1). Second, the actor reasonably believes that the third person would be justified in using force in self-defense himself. N.J.S.A. 2C:3-5a(2). Third, the actor reasonably believes that his intervention is necessary for the protection of the third person. N.J.S.A. 2C:3-5a(3). The law defines a “reasonable belief” as one which would be held by a person of ordinary prudence and intelligence. 

Each Officer involved in this incident indicated that he believed his life and the lives of bystanders were in danger, and an independent analysis of the undisputed material facts led to the determination that this belief was reasonable. Therefore, the use of deadly force was justified pursuant to all applicable laws and the Attorney General’s Guidelines.