The nighttime encounter lasted less than 15 seconds. When it was over, Gulia Dale III, a Black man and retired Army major, was dead, fatally shot by two white police officers responding to an emergency call from his worried wife, Karen.
Karen Dale had called for help four minutes earlier, concerned for her husband’s safety and telling a 911 dispatcher he was acting erratically and had a gun. A .45-caliber Glock 21 was found near his body, officials said. He was holding it when the officers fired, their lawyers said.
It was the Fourth of July in Newton, N.J., and Major Dale’s relatives believe the sound of fireworks near his home had unsettled him, reviving memories of his time in combat and aggravating the post-traumatic stress he had fought after 42 years in the Army.
“It was 12 seconds — if that,” his sister, Valerie Cobbertt, said in an interview. “It was just so fast. You didn’t give him a chance.”
“I don’t want to say that race played a part in it,” she added. “But it did.”
The shooting of Major Dale, 61, got little attention until this month, when the state attorney general’s office released videos of the episode filmed by officers’ body-worn and dashboard cameras. The office is leading an investigation into the matter, and a grand jury will be asked to consider charges against the officers, as New Jersey law requires after a fatal police encounter.
Whatever the inquiry yields, the fatal shooting of Major Dale feeds into the continuing debate over whether armed officers are the best people to send on emergency calls to help people in mental distress.
That debate grew amid the broader protests against police misconduct that sprang up last year after the killing of George Floyd. Police departments in various cities, including New York, responded by starting to have social workers and medics answer some 911 calls for mental health emergencies. On Wednesday, Newark added 10 social workers to respond to such calls. Other cities, including Albuquerque and, in perhaps the longest-running example, Eugene, Ore., had already started moving that way.
Tina Hawkins, Major Dale’s former supervisor in the equal opportunity office at the Picatinny Arsenal, an Army facility in New Jersey, said the police had overreacted in confronting him.
“They didn’t have to come out with guns a-blazing the way they did,” she said.
Ms. Cobbertt agreed, noting that the Newton police had responded differently during a January episode involving an 80-year-old white man who is accused of firing twice at officers in a parking garage after calling to report that he had a gun and planned to kill himself. The officers did not fire at the man, who was taken to a hospital for evaluation after being arrested and is charged with attempted murder.
Ms. Hawkins, who described Major Dale as “brilliant” and “very kind, very soft-spoken,” said she would not be surprised if the sound of fireworks had unnerved him. He sometimes struggled with loud noises while working at the arsenal, she said, especially after they moved from one office to another that was closer to where bombs and weapons are tested.
“It disturbed him,” said Ms. Hawkins, an Army veteran herself. “He would be visibly upset. He would take a break. Sometimes he would put on his headphones.”
Two years after the move, Major Dale left for a job as an equal opportunity specialist at the Pentagon, commuting weekly from New Jersey to Washington and back. He grew up in Montclair and Orange, N.J., and had lived in Newton for nearly 30 years. The town, in rural Sussex County in northern New Jersey, has 8,000 residents. Just 5 percent are Black, census figures show.
On the night Major Dale was shot, his wife can be heard on a recording of the 911 call trying to reason with him. “The cops are on their way,” Ms. Dale says on the recording. “For you. Because you’re acting crazy.” (Through a relative, she declined an interview request.)
Minutes later, at about 9:30 p.m., Major Dale was backing his truck out of his driveway past a white picket fence when one of three officers who answered the 911 call arrived and blocked him from the front, the police-camera footage shows. A second police car pulled up from behind, pinning him in.
“Get out of the truck,” an officer can be heard yelling. “Get out of the truck. Get on the ground.”
The footage shows Major Dale leaving the vehicle, opening a rear door and reaching inside. He then returns to the driver’s seat before quickly exiting and facing at least one of the officers. He was shot as he left the truck “with an object in his hand,” the attorney general’s office said.
Rick Robinson, who leads criminal justice committees at the N.A.A.C.P.’s New Jersey chapter, said the videos do not show the officers making any effort to defuse the conflict.
“You’ve got to question their de-escalation training,” said Mr. Robinson, who is also the chairman of Newark’s Civilian Complaint Review Board. “Why wasn’t the matter handled differently?”
All of New Jersey’s 38,000 police officers must undergo de-escalation training as part of a new “use of force” policy that takes effect next year and limits when the police can strike, chase or shoot civilians or use canines. It is unclear whether officers in Newton have had such training.
The town’s police chief declined to comment, citing the pending investigation.
The two officers identified as having fired at Major Dale, Garrett Armstrong and Steven Kneidl, are relatively new to the Newton department, according to news releases: Officer Armstrong joined last November, Officer Kneidl in May 2019. After some time off to have their health evaluated, their lawyers said, they have returned to work.
The shooting was warranted, the lawyers said.
“His death is tragic,” Charles J. Sciarra, Officer Armstrong’s lawyer, said of Major Dale. “But we’re certain that all protocols and procedures were followed.”
“He reached into his car and came out with a gun,” Mr. Sciarra continued, calling the episode a “no-win situation.”
“If they hide behind the cars and the guy drives off and then kills himself or winds up on a shooting spree,” he added, “then everyone is screaming: ‘Why did they let him get away?’”
Officer Kneidl’s lawyer, Anthony J. Iacullo, said the actions his client and Officer Armstrong took “were legally appropriate and justified.”
Melvin H. Wilson, a senior policy adviser with the National Association of Social Workers, said that Ms. Dale’s call for help was the “exact kind of thing” that would be better handled by someone other than police officers.
“The assumption is that de-escalation can happen without direct primary police involvement,” said Mr. Wilson, who contributed to a recent analysis of responses to 911 calls by police departments.
“It reduces the possibility of a lethal encounter with the police,” he added.
Ms. Cobbertt, who has filed an internal affairs complaint with the Newton police, said she did not understand why officers in the small town where her brother lived for three decades and had raised three daughters were not more sensitive to his mental health.
“There should be other questions asked when you call 911,” she said. “Why not say: ‘Is there a mental health history?’”
“To me,” she added, “my brother should still be here.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.