After standing behind an armored vehicle on 57th Street for nearly 12 hours last Saturday, Feb. 5, West New York Mayor Felix Roque had a lot of time to think about the harrowing event that took place in Hudson County that day, and what it means for how veterans are treated when they come home from war.
Earlier that day, a call came in to the police in North Bergen, a town that shares a border with West New York. Emmanuel Hernandez, 27, of West New York, had reportedly been seen inside a red Infiniti with a firearm on Kennedy Boulevard at about 2 a.m.
North Bergen police caught up with Hernandez – an Army veteran who served honorably in Iraq – at about 2:20 a.m. at the QuickChek on Kennedy Boulevard. When they approached him, he reportedly became defensive and, as he fled in his car, he allegedly ran over a cop’s foot and struck the police vehicle.
The officers chased Hernandez for several blocks into West New York, where he exited his vehicle in front of his residence at 608 57th St.
At this point, according to the prosecutor’s office, Hernandez allegedly fired a weapon at the pursuing officers and one officer returned fire. Neither the officer nor Hernandez was hit.
Within minutes, public safety personnel from throughout Hudson County and Bergen County arrived on the scene for what turned into a 12-hour siege.
Rumors increased tension
When the day-long standoff took place, neighbors got scared.
Roberta Fiero, a 20 year resident of North Bergen, said there is a lot of tension in the area. “More and more people are moving into this area and there is a lack of space,” she said. “People are living in shoeboxes.”
Residents milling near the 7-11 store on the North Bergen side of Kennedy Boulevard spread a rumor that police got shot. Journalists in the area reported it.
Mayor Roque said Hernandez, inside the house, saw these reports and became even more frightened.
“He kept saying he didn’t commit a crime,” said Mayor Roque, who was among several mediators talking to Hernandez via cellular phone during the standoff. Hernandez was also apparently in contact with his mother in Florida via another phone.
“We were all trying to calm him down,” added Roque, himself an Army colonel.
“We teach these men how to fight and kill, but we don’t teach them how to come home and be civilized again.” – Mayor Felix Roque
Police for a time also stood behind police cars with weapons aimed at the house, waiting and watching. This included sharp-shooters who might be needed if the situation escalated into additional violence.
“We kept telling him we didn’t want anybody to get hurt,” Roque said.
Veterans need help
During the long ordeal, Roque kept thinking of the man’s background and his service, and how many veterans do their job in service and then come home with all of the pain and fear building up inside of them.
“We teach these men how to fight and kill, but we don’t teach them how to come home and be civilized again,” Roque said. “I don’t know what set this man off. He may have seen the police cars and heard the sirens, and thought maybe he was back in Iraq. But I didn’t want to see this man die or anyone else get hurt because of this.”
Roque, a doctor, has worked with veterans in the past, mostly assisting in pain management. And he said he’s seen the troubles these veterans come home with, and the need for counseling that many never get.
Veterans’ rights groups say returning soldiers face a litany of issues, many of which go unaddressed. Unemployment among returning warriors has actually increased despite national attention focused on getting veterans jobs. Advocates had pushed for the U.S. government to improve The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), which provides employment assistance and protection against hiring discrimination.
A number of returning vets suffer from life-changing wounds from which they might have died in the past, but which now they must live when returning home.
Roque said some of the most serious wounds are mental. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a huge problem, which sometimes leads to outbreaks of violence, but much more often to suicide.
“This is something we need to address,” he said.
The other issue is homelessness. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is also a veteran of Iraq, has vowed to find homes for all homeless veterans and worked with trades unions and others to begin construction on housing dedicated to veterans.
“We have continued to invest in housing for our city’s veterans,” Fulop said this week in one of a series of addresses to city residents. “These projects are especially meaningful to me. We were the first in New Jersey to take on Michelle Obama’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, and we are well on our way to accomplishing this goal. This year, we will continue to build on this progress, with an upcoming Ocean Avenue project in partnership with the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency that will add 20 veteran-priority units, with units reserved specifically for homeless veterans.”
Waiting it out
As hours of unproductive negotiations passed, police and other officials stood in the cold.
“Everybody was professional. Everybody wanted to see this resolved peacefully,” Roque said. “We just didn’t know how. The negotiators were great. But he was not responding. I thought maybe I could give it a try. They let me.”
At first, Hernandez was distant and cold, Roque recalled.
“He was scared and was annoyed at the tear gas and the robot,” Roque said. “I asked the police to stop and they did.”
At this point, Roque noticed Hernandez’ uncle in the crowd, someone he knew.
“He was upset and was scared this wasn’t going to end peaceful,” Roque said. “Then he reminded me that I [had known] the suspect’s father. I had treated him years ago. He has since passed away. I thought, maybe this might be the key. So I told the man inside that I knew his father, and that the man had even talked to my wife a few days earlier.”
This began a thaw in the negotiations that eventually led to Hernandez’s surrender at about 2:15 p.m.
After Hernandez surrendered, officers recovered a handgun and a shotgun with a high capacity magazine during a search of his residence.
Hernandez has been charged by the Office of the Hudson County Prosecutor with two counts of Attempted Murder of Police Officers; Unlawful Possession of a Firearm; Possession of a Firearm for an Unlawful Purpose; Eluding Police Officers; Resisting Arrest; and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.
The prosecutor credited the North Bergen Police Department under the leadership of Police Chief Robert Dowd and the West New York Police Department under the leadership of Police Director Robert Antolos for their quick response. The prosecutor also credited the Bergen County SWAT Team with methodically coordinating the negotiations with the barricaded suspect and its tactical decision-making throughout the standoff.
Various emergency service units from throughout Hudson County responded. Providing mutual aid and support: were the Union City Police Department, Guttenberg Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Hudson County Office of Emergency Management, New Jersey State Police Office of Emergency Management, North Hudson Fire & Regional Rescue, Office of Homeland Security Investigations, West New York Medical Services, Jersey City Medical Center Emergency Services, the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office and members of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office.
The Internal Affairs Unit and the Homicide Unit of the Office of the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office are investigating the officer involved in the shooting, which is standard protocol.
Roque said he was particularly impressed by the two FBI agents that came onto the scene.
“This was the first time I was glad to see FBI agents know they were on my side,” Roque joked, referring to a 2012 federal investigation on conspiracy to hacking for which he was later acquitted. “They were very professional and helpful.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.