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Video of fatal police chase only tells part of the story

Elvis Nunez didn’t know March 27, 2014, would be his last day of work.
The Pleasantville officer wasn’t even scheduled for duty that day. He was at the station to go over a case when a call came in that a man who brandished a gun at a restaurant had fled police.
Nunez hopped in the department’s only car with a working dashboard camera, and joined the chase as it headed down the Black Horse Pike, into Egg Harbor Township, Ventnor Heights and then ended with a crash and a shootout at Atlantic City’s Walk that killed suspect Antoquan Watson.
Like about three-quarters of officers involved in such incidents, Nunez never returned to work. The effects of that day were too difficult to move past.
“I had to give up a job I worked so hard to get,” he says. “I always wanted to be a police officer.”
The video captured on Nunez’s dashboard camera that day was released by Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner on Monday, following a July 11 Supreme Court ruling that such footage is public record.
Before then, the video was seen by a 2015 grand jury that cleared the seven police officers who fired at Watson.
But while the public now has a clear visual of what happened that day, the story is still not complete.
“This was a really, really terrible and tragic day,” said Pleasantville Police Chief Sean Riggin, who was a captain in the department at the time. “All the people that were there would rather that they weren’t.”
For officers involved in fatal shootings, the incident doesn’t end with the suspect dead.
Only about a quarter return to work, says retired FBI Special Agent Mark Johnston. The number is even lower in South Jersey over the past three years.

“It’s a career-ender, and one of the reasons is the aftermath,” Johnston said. “The decision to shoot someone — whether to protect one’s own life or someone else’s life — is devastating.”

The retired agent with a doctorate in philosophy says the subtitle to his book, “FBI and an Ordinary Guy” says it all: “The Private Price of Public Service.”
That is why Johnston started the South Jersey Law Enforcement Peer Critical Incident Support Group. It’s “cops supporting cops.”
Nunez, 40, is a huge proponent, and a member.
Although he officially retired Oct. 1, 2015, after eight years an a police officer, his last day on the job was the day Watson died.
For a while, Nunez’s family had to be careful about slamming doors or making sudden loud noises because it would be a trigger for him. There was a domestic incident with his wife, and many problems.
Maryann Nunez was going through things as well.
She was on the phone her now-husband when the chase began.
“I gotta call you back, I’m in a vehicle pursuit, all right?” he can be heard saying about a minute into the recording.
But he didn’t hang up. Maryann stayed on the phone, listening, worrying and crying. When the shots began, the phone went dead. Until she got a call from the hospital, she feared the worst.
When Watson crashed his SUV, the officers in pursuit jumped out of their cars, and pointed their guns, ordering him to throw down his weapon. Instead, he came out shooting.
Nunez can be seen in the video, admittedly going against training by breaking cover.
He has a reason. A driver just in front of Watson’s vehicle was screaming, trapped and scared. Nunez’s instinct was to protect her, he says.

“I had to give up a job I worked so hard to get,” Nunez says.

After Watson was down, Nunez ran to the woman, who he says was ghost white. He told her to go. He’s still not sure if she was ever questioned by investigators.
Everything seemed ok right after. Before the adrenaline wore off.
Then, things got difficult.
Because of the rules following a police-involved shooting, he was on paid leave and was not allowed at the station. But that is where he needed to be, with those he had served with and trusted. Now, he felt alone.
Most people become police officers because they want to be the good guy, the hero in a white hat, Johnston said. To suddenly be put in an adversarial position can throw everything out of whack.
The release of the video could also be a trigger for some of the officers involved, he said.
“It can also be somewhat cathartic that it can be out there and the public can view it,” said Johnston, whose own career was touched by trauma, including his partner being killed.
He also worked the World Trade Center scene on Sept. 11, 2001.
For him, passing a construction site can be a trigger: “Just the smell of sheetrock dust.”
Because of the negative public perception, many officers involved in these shootings don’t want to be identified.
While Pleasantville’s police chief respects the need to release the video in the name of transparency and informing the public, he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to see it.
“I’ve seen people die,” Riggin said. “And I’d rather never have to do it again.”
He worries about the comments, and those who may view the video just for entertainment.

“That’s our issue with all these videos,” Riggin said. “Many police videos depict the worst day in real people’s lives. I don’t think it should be social media fodder so people can make comments. Being involved in this dramatically affected people’s lives. And it ended Mr. Watson’s life. I hope that people view the video with report to that sort of angle.”

Nunez has watched it several times. He is able to talk about what is happening — and even apologizes for his language when a driver didn’t get out of the way to allow him to follow as Watson squeezed between two cars to turn onto Albany Avenue.
He doesn’t know if he’ll ever had a full, good night’s sleep again. But when asked if he would trade his whole career to have that rest, he is adamant that he would not.
“If I never get to sleep well again, it doesn’t matter to me,” Nunez says. “As long as I was able to do my job to the best of my ability, so I’m happy with that.”

 

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