The bullet, fired by a police officer who was sprinting into the 3 am darkness, struck Khalif Cooper with improbable accuracy.
The bullet penetrated the lower back of the young man before tearing through organs and coming to rest near vertebrae that controls lower body movement. By morning, Mr. Cooper had lost a kidney, half of his colon and his ability to ever walk again.
“My whole life just changed,” said Mr. Cooper, who is 29 and Black, in his first interview since the shooting.
It happened on a hot Saturday last June in Paterson, NJ, and Mr. Cooper, the father of two young daughters, said he was running away from the sound of gunfire.
A policeman, Jerry Moravek, came racing down the sidewalk to the same noise. Their paths crossed, police body camera footage shows, and Officer Moravek pivoted to begin chasing Mr. Cooper, convinced he was holding a gun.
Months later, Officer Moravek would be charged with aggravated assault for his decision to fire his weapon, without warning, at a man who was running away. In March, the shooting would become one of the many data points used to justify the attorney general’s decision to take the rare step of seizing control of the troubled Paterson Police Department.
But that is largely beside the point to Mr. Cooper. He worries most these days about his inability to help when his daughters cry and the mild humiliations that define his daily existence. He can’t lift himself out of his wheelchair into bed without help, and his girlfriend, who gave birth to their daughter a week after the shooting, now also has to change her diaper.
“There were times when I just couldn’t take it, and I was, like, ‘I just want to die,'” he said.
Mr Cooper had past run-ins with the police, and he had been released from prison less than two years earlier after serving time for weapons and drug convictions. But he was not accused of doing anything wrong the night he was shot. And a gun found about a block from where he fell bore none of his DNA or fingerprints, court records show.
“Why did you run away from me?” the asked an officer Mr. Cooper after pulling his wrists into handcuffs, according to a video released by prosecutors. “I was afraid,” he replied.
Narcia Cooper, Khalif’s mother, spent almost every day at her son’s bedside during the three months he was hospitalized. She still can’t understand why he was shot. “If someone is running away from you, why shoot them?” she asked.
Many police shooting victims’ names become rallying cries for reform after death. As someone who survived, Mr. Cooper understands the power he now holds as a grim, living reminder of America’s policing crisis.
“What I went through — I don’t want anyone to ever go through this,” he said.
This week, Mr. Cooper filed a $50 million federal lawsuit against Officer Moravek, the City of Paterson and its former police chief and police director. He has dual goals: to pocket enough money to pay for a lifetime of medical care and to drive home a point.
“We pray that the good cops continue to be good cops,” said Kenyatta Stewart, who grew up with Mr. Cooper in Paterson and is one of three attorneys representing him, “and the bad cops understand what can happen when you make these decisions .”
Officer Moravek remains on paid leave. Paterson’s mayor, André Sayegh, said the city does not comment on pending litigation. Officer Moravek’s attorney, Patrick Caserta, could not be reached for comment, but he said his client made a split-second decision based on a belief that his life and the lives of people nearby were at imminent risk.
Isa M. Abbassi, a former New York Police Department chief who was instrumental in creating the city’s strategy after the 2014 police killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island, has been in charge of the Paterson department since early May.
“We have already started the process of providing supplementary training for our members in the areas of constitutional policing and use of force,” Mr Abbassi said on his first day on the job.
“The next generation of public safety begins today,” he added, “and it begins in Paterson, New Jersey.”
With 157,000 residents, Paterson, which is about 20 miles northwest of New York, is the third largest city in the state.
It has its landmarks. Hinchliffe Stadium, one of the last Negro Leagues stadiums still standing, reopened in May behind the Great Falls, a water power giant that fueled the country’s Industrial Revolution. Over the past two decades, refugees from Afghanistan and Syria and elsewhere, eager to build new lives, have flooded the welcoming city.
But unlike Newark and Jersey City, the state’s two larger cities, which are closer to the glow of New York and benefit more from its reflected glow, Paterson has struggled for economic traction.
Its schools, sub state control for 30 years through 2021, have been closed during the pandemic longer than all but one other county in New Jersey. last spring, 46 percent of the city’s third-graders scored at the lowest level on standardized reading tests, more than twice the statewide failure rate.
And of the 46 fatal encounters with New Jersey police officers since 2019, eight have been in Paterson — more than any other community in the state, according to an analysis by News from NJ Spotlight.
Every year in the United States, more than 80,000 people suffer nonfatal injuries during contact with law enforcement officers, according to a University of Illinois at Chicago study of data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2018, the most recent year with all relevant figures available, 54 percent of those injured were Black, although African Americans make up only about. 14 percent of the country’s population.
Before the shooting, Mr Cooper said he had never felt particularly distrustful of the police. “I look at police officers as people, they do what they have to do,” said Mr. Cooper, whose uncle and cousin are both police officers in Paterson. “That’s their job.”
Dennis Hickerson-Breedon, one of Mr. Cooper’s lawyers, said it would be impossible to know what Officer Moravek was thinking when he pulled the trigger. However, he said he believed Mr. Cooper’s well-being “was much more expendable than a person who may live in a more suburban neighborhood.”
The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in New Jersey, argues that Officer Moravek fired his weapon on June 11, 2022, “without need, justification or cause,” in violation of Mr. Cooper’s civil rights.
In the spring of 2022, Mr. Cooper moved with his girlfriend, Kaelah Pace, to Sugar Notch, Pa., about two hours west of Paterson by car, and prepared to start work at a pet food company, the couple said. . His attorneys said he was in Paterson the weekend of the shooting to see his older daughter, who is 6.
Police body camera video from that night shows about a dozen people milling around outside. Officer Moravek pulls up in a police car at about 3:15 am and explains to them that several neighbors have called to complain. Then, over the radio, another officer reports having a suspect with a gun in custody. Seconds later, three shots ring out, and Officer Moravek starts running toward the noise, meeting Mr. Cooper along the way.
“Drop the gun,” he yells repeatedly, but never orders Mr. Cooper to stop or warns that he is about to shoot — omissions that the attorney general said were violations by the state. policy on use of force when he accused Officer Moravek of assault and official misconduct.
The bullet was never removed from Mr. Cooper’s back. For now, he said, it’s safer to leave it untouched.
Ms. Pace, a registered nurse who also has a 5- and 7-year-old, is his primary caregiver, but physical therapists and nurses visit regularly. Wound care, managing a diet that is easy on his remaining kidney and the stress involved in lifting Mr. Cooper in and out of the wheelchair are constant struggles.
“It’s just a lot,” Ms. Pace, 23, said before breaking down in tears, waking their 1-year-old daughter, who began to fuss.
Mr. Cooper reached over and put her on his lap in the wheelchair, and the baby smiled.
“She thinks it’s a ride,” he said.
Mr. Cooper said he missed the little things the most: a walk to the park; to be able to swim with his daughters; the dream of eventually having another child.
“I would like to go back. I would like to go back in time,” he said.
“But I have to go on for my kids — you know? — for my daughters.
“They give me life.”