investigation into the death of Steven Sherlock, 25, of Fair Lawn, N.J., who died on March 17, after he was involved in a bar fight and was transported to a hospital by Paterson police officers.
The investigation into Sherlock’s death and the use of pepper spray by a Paterson police officer during the incident was conducted by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, in accordance with the Independent Prosecutor Directive, issued in 2006, strengthened in 2015, and expanded in December 2019 (“the Independent Prosecutor Directive”).
The investigation included interviews of civilian witnesses, review of footage from surveillance cameras, and autopsy results from the medical examiner.
As a result of the investigation, OPIA Director Thomas Eicher determined that presentation of the investigation to a grand jury was not required under the directive because the undisputed facts indicated that the use of non-deadly force, i.e., pepper spray, by an officer of the Paterson Police Department (“Officer 1”) was justified under the law and Sherlock’s subsequent death was accidental and not the result of any use of force by Paterson police officers.
According to the investigation, Paterson police officers, including Officer 1, were dispatched to Duffy’s Bar and Tavern on River Street in Paterson at about 2:44 a.m. on March 17, 2019, on a report of a fight outside the bar. At the scene, witnesses and victims, including a female victim whose face was bloodied, were interviewed by officers.
They revealed that a physical altercation began inside the bar and continued later outside. Video footage from outside the bar confirmed that Sherlock was involved in a fight with two bar patrons, a man and a woman. Sherlock struck the man in the face and head, apparently knocking him unconscious.
Before police arrived, bar security guards attempted to subdue Sherlock, but Sherlock was still physically struggling with the guards when police arrived.
Officer 1 stated that when he arrived, Sherlock was face down on a bench with his hands underneath his chest, and security guards were attempting to restrain him. Officer 1 stated that he was worried that Sherlock might have a weapon in his hands. He ordered Sherlock to show his hands, but Sherlock did not comply. Sherlock, who smelled of alcohol, was resisting and cursing. Officer 1 used a short burst of pepper spray against Sherlock, then rolled him on his side and handcuffed him.
Sherlock fell down at one point after being handcuffed. Officer 1 and other officers who arrived placed Sherlock in a marked police vehicle, and Officer 1 drove him to St. Joseph’s University Medical Center for treatment.
When Officer 1 arrived at the hospital with Sherlock, followed by additional officers in other vehicles, Sherlock refused to leave the police vehicle. The officers tried to convince him, and when he refused, they pulled him from the vehicle.
Once outside, Sherlock laid on the ground and refused to stand up. After Officer 1 explained to Sherlock that he was not under arrest, Sherlock got up and walked into the hospital, where he again became belligerent. Sherlock stumbled and fell several times.
At the request of hospital staff, officers escorted Sherlock to a room and removed the handcuffs. Officers then left the hospital. Sherlock subsequently tried to assault hospital staff and security. Sherlock died approximately an hour after he arrived at the hospital— approximately 50 minutes after the officers left.
The autopsy performed on Sherlock revealed he died as a result of “coronary artery atherosclerosis with cardiomegaly.” The Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that a contributory cause of death was acute ethanol intoxication with excited delirium. The manner of death was ruled accidental.
After reviewing the evidence, video footage, witness statements, and autopsy report, Director Eicher concluded that the use of non-deadly force by the officer was justified and the cause of Sherlock’s death was accidental and not the result of any use of force by Paterson police officers.