Family of Black retired Army major killed by police demands transparency

·6 min read

Valerie Cobbertt noticed differences in her older brother, Gulia Dale, every time he returned from an active-duty tour in Iraq.

"We didn't know the spectrum of everything he dealt with," Cobbertt said in an interview Monday. "I would notice loud noises bothered him. I remember he would say, 'Don't slam the car door.'"

So it came as no surprise when she learned that Dale, 61, a retired Army major who was activated on Sept. 11, 2001, and who, she said, had post-traumatic stress disorder, was triggered by a barrage of fireworks that were deployed July 4 by his neighbors on Clive Place in Newton, New Jersey.

Dale's wife, Karen, called 911 that evening because she was concerned about his behavior. She told a dispatcher that her husband had a gun and was leaving their home, according to a recording of the 911 call released by the New Jersey attorney general's office.

Newton police officers shot and killed Dale outside his home. Cobbertt, who filed an internal affairs complaint with Newton police Aug. 5, believes police would have responded differently had her brother been white and not Black.

"His wife called for someone to come and help because she feared that he may take his own life," said Cobbertt, 52, who lives in Bloomfield. "She called for someone to help. She said it twice. When they came, that was not the case. They murdered my brother."

Cobbertt and Dale spoke at a vigil held for Dale on Saturday in Newton, a town in Sussex County about 60 miles northwest of New York City. The town's population was estimated at 8,019 in July 2019, 89.7 percent of whom are white, according to census data. Black people account for 4.7 percent of Newton's population.

Newton police declined to comment Monday, referring all questions to the state attorney general's office, which is investigating Dale's death in pursuance with a state law enacted in January 2019. The law requires the attorney general's office to investigate deaths that occur during encounters with on-duty law enforcement officers or while the decedents are in custody. The employment status of the three officers who responded is unclear.

Officers Steven Kneidl and Garrett Armstrong shot at Dale shortly after 9:30 p.m. on July 4, the attorney general's office said in a statement this month.

A redacted video released by the attorney general's office shows that Dale was trying to leave in a pickup truck when police arrived. At that point, "the officers' body-worn cameras were activated and recording the events that transpired," the statement says.

Dale heeded the officers' commands to get out of the vehicle, according to the statement and the body-camera videos. Dale then opened the rear driver's side door and briefly leaned inside before he closed the door, video appears to show. He then got in the driver's seat as officers repeatedly yelled, "Get out of the truck." According to the attorney general's office, Dale again got out of the vehicle, this time "with an object in his hand."

Kneidl and Armstrong then fired their guns at him, striking the vehicle and fatally wounding Dale, authorities said.

A .45-caliber Glock 21 firearm was recovered near Dale, the attorney general's statement says.

Karen Dale, who could not be reached for an interview Monday, could be heard on the 911 call saying: "The cops are on their way. For you. Because you're acting crazy."

Cobbertt said her brother was having a PTSD breakdown, a mental disturbance.

"I think what played a big factor were those fireworks in his area," she said, adding that they might have triggered his condition.

She said she believes that because of her brother's race, police took no measures to de-escalate the situation.

"They see us differently. And they treat us differently," she said.

She also questioned why police responded with their guns drawn.

Cobbertt and Rick Robinson, chairman of the Newark Civilian Complaint Review Board, contend that the police department has not been transparent enough. They said they want to see unedited video of the encounter and to know the identity of a third officer who was at the scene. The attorney general's office said that officer has not been publicly identified because the officer did not fire a weapon.

In an interview Monday, Robinson said Dale served honorably for 30 years, including in Operation Desert Storm, and worked at the Defense Department and the Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County, New Jersey.

"We're talking about somebody who had a stellar background," Cobbertt said. "He worked at the Pentagon. You can't just get into that job. They do extensive background checks for everything. You couldn't have a blemish on your record in order to get a job like that."

She said Dale was the second oldest of six children and the only boy.

Robinson, the chairman of the Newark NAACP Criminal Justice Committee, organized the vigil for Dale, which drew about 50 people. He said the redacted videos have raised questions about the police response.

"The video shows two officers," he said. "But it was really three officers. It doesn't show the entire footage of the entire matter."

Newton is a small town, Robinson said, which is why he believes officers should have known they were responding to the home of an Army veteran in distress triggered by the Fourth of July holiday. Dale lived in the town — where he and his wife raised three daughters — for 28 years, his sister and Robinson said.

"He was not given the benefit of the doubt," Robinson said. "This is what's actually troubling to the family."

Like Cobbertt, Robinson said he also believes police did not use tactics to fully gauge the situation.

"In this particular instance, we have an armed forces hero, and he was taken away from his family and from the community, and it is really shameful that the engagement resulted in something like this," Robinson said.

Steven Young, the president of the National Action Network of South Jersey, attended the vigil Saturday and has made efforts to set up a meeting between Cobbertt and the attorney general.

According to the attorney general's office, investigators met with Dale's family and their attorney to review the video recordings on July 30. Cobbertt said an uncle attended the meeting on her family's behalf out of concern that the videos would be too graphic for her and Karen Dale.

"If you're a veteran and you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, when you hear all these guns, these fireworks and all that, it brings triggers back to your mind of being in a war zone," Young said. "So your approach should have been thinking that way, as well."

He added: "We got the 911 call stating that he needs help, not to be assassinated."

Cobbertt said she and her siblings, as well as Dale's wife, are distraught and in shock.

"He just needed help," she said. "If they would have approached him differently, he would still be alive."

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