Mercer County Prosecutor: Use of force justified in 2018 shootings at Art All Night in Trenton

Almost two and a half years after the shootings at the annual Art All Night festival at the Roebling Machine Shop in Trenton, the Mercer County Prosecutor has finally completed and released the findings of an investigation into the use of force by two police officers and two detectives from the Trenton Police Department, concluding that the use of force that let to one suspect being shot and another being killed was justified.

Tahaij Wells

The shootings occurred on June 17 of 2018 at the 24-hour art festival, one of the most popular annual events in the capital city. At least 22 people were injured and 1 person, Tahaij Wells, age 32, was killed at the event.

Wells had just been released from Trenton State Prison after serving 15 years of an 18 year sentence for aggravated manslaughter, spending most of that time there in solitary confinement to prevent his own gang from killing him after they put out a hit on him for the unauthorized execution of a fellow gang member. His enemies sought revenge at Art All Night. A shootout began inside the Roebling Machine Shop Building and ended just outside the building, with police taking down Wells and injuring a second shooter.

According to investigators, the shootings by police were legally justified. Investigators said in the investigation report that an officer may use deadly force when he or she reasonably believes it is “immediately necessary to protect the officer . . . from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.”

The New Jersey Criminal Code also justifies the use of deadly force in self-defense where “the actor believes that such force is necessary to protect himself against death or serious bodily harm.” State statute also governs the use of force for the protection of others. The use of force is justified when an officer reasonably believes his intervention is necessary for the protection of another person.

“The detectives and officers believed that discharging their weapons was necessary for the protection of their lives and the lives of the many people present,” according to th investigation report released on Thursday. “An independent analysis of the undisputed material facts led to the determination that the beliefs of the detectives and officers were reasonable, and the use of force in this matter was justified pursuant to all applicable laws and the Attorney General guidelines.”

Investigators reviewed police reports, statements of officers and witnesses, radio transmissions, photographs, camera footage, and physical evidence, and said they determined the following:

On June 16, 2018, members of the Trenton Police Department were assigned to work at Art All Night. The event was scheduled to run from 3 p.m. on Saturday to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Trenton Police detectives were scheduled to work from 8 p.m. on June 16 to 3 a.m. on June 17. Officers described a larger than usual crowd and noted that as the night progressed, multiple fights occurred throughout the venue. According to the report by investigators, in order to assist with crowd issues, a Trenton sergeant and lieutenant requested additional detectives and officers to assist with crowd control that night.

At about 2:15 a.m., officers were advised that the event was being shut down until the following morning. Officers began requesting that the crowds move toward Dye Street. Officer 1 and another officer stood in front of the Roebling Machine Shop building to prevent patrons from re-entering. (Editor’s note: Planet Princeton was on scene that night just inside the front entrance, and police were also not allowing the crowds to leave the building via that entrance. Instead, patrons were directed to walk to the opposite end of the building in order to leave.)

Officer 1 was standing about 10 feet away from the front entrance doors when he observed the doors opening and saw patrons attempting to flee the Roebling building. Officer 1 heard gunshots coming from inside the building. He said he turned around, looked inside, and observed a Black male wearing a dark shirt with a pattern and blue jeans, who was later identified as Wells. According to Officer 1, Wells appeared taller than the crowd of people. Officer 1 believed that Wells may have been standing on something to give him extra height. Officer 1 continued to observe Wells and allegedly saw him shooting a handgun in a downward position into the crowd. Wells then allegedly shot into the crowd about 10 times. Officer 1 then drew his firearm as Wells ran in his direction. The officer said Wells was leaning to the right with his hand elevated as he held the handgun. Officer 1 said he fired his weapon at Wells multiple times as Wells continued to move and would not show his hands. Wells collapsed as the officers yelled “cover” and moved in to handcuff him.

At the same time, Officer 2, who was positioned near the front entrance doors of the building, heard multiple gunshots from inside the building and saw patrons running from the area. As Officer 2 ran toward the left side of the building, where he also observed Wells. He said that fearing for his safety and that of others in the area, he also discharged his police-issued firearm twice at Wells and said he heard additional gunfire in the area as well. Officer 2 then said he observed Wells fall to the ground. Officer 2 holstered his weapon and handcuffed Wells with the assistance of Detective 1. Mr. Wells was later pronounced dead. Two firearms were recovered near Wells’ body.

Like Officer 2, Detective 1 was positioned near the front entrance doors of the Roebling Machine Shop building at about 2:15 a.m. Detective 1 was positioned with Officer 1 when he heard multiple gunshots coming from inside the building. Patrons began screaming and running out of the building. Detective 1 drew his police-issued firearm to a “low ready position” while scanning the crowd. (A low ready position is a handgun drawn and ready to shoot.) Detective 1’s attention was drawn to Wells coming out of the building with a gun in his hand pointed in an upward position. Detective 1 said he perceived Wells as a threat and fired his police-issued firearm at him. Wells fell to the ground with his hands in his waistband. Detective 1 began to verbally give Wells commands as he moved toward him. Detective 1 holstered his weapon and Officer 2 assisted him with handcuffing Wells. Detective 1 said he heard additional gunshots and “chaos” around him. He drew his firearm and continued to scan the crowd.

Detective 2 was situated in the area near the front entrance doors of the Roebling Wire Works building. Detective 2 observed Officer 1 by the front entrance doors of the building attempting to move patrons out of the area. Detective 2 closed one of the front entrance doors of the building. He said he was then advised by security that there was a physical altercation inside of the building. Detective 2 took a few steps into the building when he said he heard multiple gunshots. He drew his police-issued firearm and began scanning for the threat as he moved backward into Dye Street. Detective 2’s attention was drawn to a Black male running from inside of the building toward Dye Street with a handgun in a low ready position. The person was later identified as Davone White. Detective 2 observed Officer 1 discharge his weapon at Wells as Wells continued running toward Dye Street and stumbled to the ground. As this occurred, Detective 2 said White turned around, raised his handgun and pointed it in Detective 2’s direction. Detective 2 said he fired his weapon until White fell to the ground and was no longer a threat. Detective 2 then approached White. A handgun and an extended magazine that Detective 2 observed in White’s hand were collected near White’s location. White survived.

In response to the gunfire and commotion, Detective 3 radioed Trenton Police Communications, advised them that gunshots were fired, and requested additional units to respond. In response to the gunshots, Detective 3 and Officer 3 proceeded into the Roebling Machine Shop building with their weapons drawn and began ordering everyone to the ground.

While inside the building, Detective 3 and Officer 3 attended to several gunshot victims. They located a victim, later identified as Amir Armstrong, on the floor with a gunshot wound to the right side of his head. In order to assess his condition, Officer 3 and Detective 3 began to cut away Armstrong’s white t-shirt and observed a silver revolver tucked into the right side of his waistband. Detective 3 removed the revolver from Armstrong’s waistband and secured it. Detective 3 then used Armstrong’s white t-shirt to apply pressure to his wound while awaiting the arrival of emergency personnel on scene. Armstrong survived. The investigation revealed that Armstrong was not shot by police, but had been shot during the altercation in the building.

At about 2:45 a.m., Trenton Police Officers 4 and 5 were detailed to 635 S. Clinton Avenue on a report of shots fired. Upon their arrival, they said they observed people running from the scene and began to assist Trenton Emergency Medical Services with multiple gunshot victims. Officer 4 proceeded to the front entrance of the Roebling Wire Works building near Dye Street and observed multiple officers crouched down near Wells. Officer 4 said that Wells appeared to be handcuffed and was lying face down by the door.

Wells was transported by paramedics to Capital Health Regional Medical Center. White was also transported by paramedics to Capital Health Regional Medical Center. At approximately 3:17 a.m., Wells was pronounced dead. Additional injured people were located and transported either by ambulance or by the police to Capital Health Regional Medical Center for treatment.

Trenton police officers secured the area. In addition, they secured the surrounding streets in the area. While securing the surrounding areas, Trenton police officers located a red, four-door 2007 Pontiac G6 bearing a temporary New Jersey tag with heavy damage to the rear door. The owner of the vehicle was later identified. She reported that she was carjacked by someone with a handgun during the Art All Night event. A suspect was never linked to the carjacking.

At about 4:45 a.m., a sergeant with the Mercer County Homicide Task Force authorized all officers with body cameras to turn off their equipment. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office chief of detectives was then advised of the investigation.

About 75 potential witnesses were located inside of the Roebling Machine Shop building. Detectives from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office interviewed the witnesses. All witnesses described hearing multiple gunshots, but most could not identify any suspects or provide additional information related to the investigation. It was determined that one bystander had been struck by a bullet fired by an officer. The bystander survived.

The Shot Spotter gunfire detection system captured 26 gunshots fired near the Roebling complex. This is located in the immediate area of where Trenton police officers responded to gunfire and observed Wells and White armed with handguns fleeing the Roebling Wire Works building.

At about 7 a.m., the New Jersey State Police Crime Scene Unit responded to the Roebling Wire Works building and processed the scene. Items collected at the crime scene included a Glock 22 handgun with a magazine that was discovered in the garbage can near the building’s front entrance doors, a black handgun with a large-capacity magazine located near Davone White, a JA 380 handgun located in the parking lot in front of the building, and a Taurus revolver located on Amir Armstrong.

A blood draw was taken from Officers 1 and 2 as well as Detectives 1 and 2. A lab analysis of all of the blood samples yielded negative findings for either ethyl alcohol or any drugs that would have impaired officers at the time of this incident, according to the investigation report.

As a result of the investigation, Armstrong was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon and receiving stolen property. He pleaded guilty in June of 2019 to “certain persons not to possess a firearm” charges and is awaiting sentencing. White was charged with possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, unlawful possession of a weapon, possession of a large capacity ammunition magazine, aggravated assault, and certain persons not to possess a weapon charges. He pleaded guilty in June of 2019 to possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose charges and is also awaiting sentencing.