A plainclothes police officer who fatally shot a stranded motorist in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., 10 days ago, apparently wasn’t qualified for his undercover surveillance assignment, according to documents obtained by Yahoo News.
The victim, Corey Jones, 31, a public-housing inspector and part-time musician, was waiting for a tow truck about 3:15 a.m. on Oct. 18 when he was shot multiple times by Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja.
Palm Beach Gardens chief Stephen Stepp said Raja, 38, told them he was “suddenly confronted by an armed subject” and fatally shot Jones.
Jones was licensed to carry a concealed gun and likely never knew he was being confronted by a police officer, said Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney who has represented the families of several slain African-Americans including Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
Raja, who pulled up in an unmarked van and got out wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a ball cap, never displayed his badge, Crump said last week after Florida’s 15th judicial circuit state attorney briefed him and the Jones family.
Chief Stepp told reporters last week that Raja, who was in his sixth month with the department, had been conducting surveillance on suspected burglaries.
But the department’s written procedures, obtained by Yahoo News through the Florida open records law, require that surveillance operations be carried out by tactical officers or detectives. As a new hire, Raja was still on probationary status and assigned to patrol. Nothing in his personnel file indicates other duties.
“It looks like they assigned an untrained officer to conduct surveillance,” said police practices consultant Chuck Drago, who read the department’s surveillance policy at Yahoo News’ request. “Surveillance is an art and it takes training and practice. I think the PD will have to explain the use of an untrained officer in such a position.”
Chief Stepp, who approved the surveillance guidelines in July, did not respond to an email seeking comment. Officer Ellen Lovejoy, the department’s spokesperson and professional standards officer, said via email “Your request has been forwarded for processing.”
According to the policy, all surveillance must be coordinated through the department’s Investigation Bureau and that Chief Stepp and other top brass be briefed when necessary.
Joe Giacalone, a retired New York City detective who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also read the Palm Beach Gardens policy at Yahoo News’ request.
“My concern was the lack of supervision — clearly outlined in (the policy),” said Giacalone, who is not connected to the case. “I’m assuming that the bosses didn’t know much about this operation — which doesn’t relieve them of vicarious liability.”
Before joining the Palm Beach Gardens force, Raja worked for seven years with the nearby Atlantis Police Department where he rose to become a supervisor who trained new officers, taught firearms and maintained video systems in squad cars. The application he submitted to Palm Beach Gardens does not list detective or surveillance experience.
Drago, a former longtime police administrator, said mentally going from working in a uniform to plainclothes isn’t an easy switch.
“This type of duty should be reserved for experienced, trained officers,” said Drago, a former longtime police administrator. “The experience should be in surveillance and plainclothes work.”
Jones, a drummer, was going home from a gig when his vehicle broke down. Images of the crime scene shot by WPBF-TV show Jones’ Hyundai Santa Fe on the ramp’s shoulder. The white van driven by Raja appears to have come up the ramp against traffic before parking perpendicular a few feet in front of Jones’ SUV.
The state attorney told the victim’s family that Raja shot six times and that Jones never fired his weapon. Jones’ body was discovered about 80 to 100 feet from his car with his gun found somewhere between.
“The public should not only care about this behavior but what type of training, if any, did this officer receive and who was watching him?” Giacalone said.
Jason Sickles is a national reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).