Presentation of the Bronze Medal of Valor–winning response from Officers Daniel Murphy, Omar Akel and Eric Voorand received the oohs and aahs that often come from the crowd when a felon with a lengthy criminal history is caught. But when Valor Awards emcee Rob Nixon reached the part about the officers fending off gunfire from the criminal, taking him out and not harming a baby he had been carrying, the nearly 1,000 people in the crowd arose in unison with an ovation that rattled glasses on the dinner tables.
The loudest and longest standing ovation of the night.
The roller coaster ride of emotions flowing since that Nov. 5, 2021, response continued as the Valor Awards thundered on. When relating his feelings about the response, Howell Officer Murphy eventually had to wipe away some tears. When thinking about that 2-week-old baby, Murphy understandably couldn’t find any words.
And the ovation almost left him speechless as well.
“I was pretty surprised. Wasn’t expecting that,” Murphy related. “It’s definitely kind of the culmination of everything coming together and getting the praise for our actions that day.”
That day carries a deafening magnitude for these officers, who responded as part of the Monmouth County SWAT team. Voorand, who has been on with Manalapan for 17 years, didn’t get too caught up in the moment of the Valor Awards. Mixed emotions of appreciation, celebration and palpitation led to expressing distinct and direct feelings about the incident.
“I just want to say it was a total team effort,” Voorand submitted. “And the whole team is why we got the task accomplished.”
On Nov. 5, 2021, the Monmouth County Emergency Response Team responded to a call of a barricaded suspect. The felon, wanted for homicide, had a long history that included attempted murder, robbery, aggravated assault and numerous weapons offenses Officers Murphy, Akel and Voorand responded to the scene and took up positions on the perimeter of the residence. After a nine-hour standoff, the subject agreed to exit peacefully.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he tried to create a distraction by setting fire to the house. Then he exited, firing at the officers while carrying the infant as cover. Officers Murphy, Akel and Voorand skillfully returned fire. And they took out the gunman without harming the child.
When Nixon announced those words, “without harming the child,” it sent a shock wave of relief and rejoicing through the crowd.
Former Howell Local 228 State Delegate Ryan Hurley was also the Monmouth County Conference chair at the time. Through a group chat with his close friend Murphy, he heard that the gunman was going to get hit with a warrant and that the incident was escalating to the SWAT team with multiple agencies in the county responding.
Then, the morning after, he heard that the gunman had used the baby as a human shield. He thought, That couldn’t be right. Who would do that?
“Crazy. You hope it was an exaggeration, but sure enough it happened,” Hurley said, apparently still trying to find the right words as he attended the Valor Awards more than a year after the incident.
Hurley has been to many PBA Valor Awards. He knows how much the crowd loves to rise and applaud these kinds of responses. But this one, this year, stood out.
“We’re here year after year. And usually we see there’s eight, 10 standing ovations for all sorts of different awards,” Hurley observed. “That was the first full standing ovation of the night for that event, and then one of only two for the night. I thought it was a well deserved response because these guys are absolutely phenomenal.”
Reaction from award-winning officers seemed to mix being stunned at the ovation with being humble about what they did. Murphy was spot-on in noting that it was great to be recognized for all the years of hard work and dedication. And that the best part — other than the baby not being harmed — was that they did not get hurt.
Officer Akel has reached one of his prime career goals by being on the SWAT team, which he achieved in two years working in Middletown, following six in Long Branch. And as he felt the ovation, Akel sensed what should be celebrated in the aftermath of the response.
“We beat the odds, and we’re all really lucky that we had that outcome,” he stated. “It was nice to see everybody appreciate it. Times like that really help ground us and remind us that what we do really means a lot to people.”
Forceful without Force
In the early hours of Oct. 6, 2022, a man carrying a knife yelled to officers at the Asbury Park police station, “You’ll have to shoot me.” Sergeant Joseph Spallina found himself in the middle, trying to disarm the situation.
Apparently, the man had come to headquarters with the motive to cause harm to himself. He had already thrust the knife into the tire of a marked police vehicle.
Working to avoid using deadly force, Spallina approached the man and began communicating with him. As an officer for 20 years, Spallina said dealing with different people in the field helped him progress in talking with the man.
“I got on a first-name basis with him and then began talking to him and trying to distract him,” Spallina recalled. “I used some of those skills and tried to treat him like a human being.”
Once the man’s attention was turned elsewhere, Spallina took the opportunity to tackle him and safely secure the knife before the man could injure any officers. Perhaps dealing with some mental health issues, the suspect was quickly transported to a hospital and then into custody.
Spallina expressed that other officers would have done something similar in this situation. He also said that a lot of people can approach an incident like this with a harsher response due to the nature of it.
“A lot of guys said to me, ‘Good job,’ and some said that they wouldn’t have done this,” Spallina stated. “Sometimes people automatically think that a guy coming at you with a knife, oh, you’re going to shoot that guy. But there’s a lot of guys in my position who would’ve done the same thing.”
Put Down the Knife
By nightfall on Jan. 4, 2022, a blanket of snow lay on the ground by Burns Road in Millville, where a man stood with a machete, facing Officer Timothy Rehmann. With only a slight distance between himself and the man, Officer Rehmann started talking to him in hopes of reaching a peaceful resolution.
Rehmann approached the suspect and ordered him to drop the weapon. The man instead started swinging the machete at him. A published report described the heated situation based on body-camera footage.
In the video, Rehmann instructed the man to drop the knife. To this, the suspect shouted, “Or you’ll do what?”
The man advanced farther toward Rehmann and another officer who had arrived at the scene. He did not relent even when Rehmann repeatedly asked him to surrender. The suspect continued walking down the street, challenging the two officers.
In the incident, which lasted more than a minute, Rehmann finally fired a shot, putting an end to the complex situation. Rehmann’s actions, which earned the Bronze Medal of Valor, certainly prevented other officers at the scene and members of the community.
Dec. 18, 2021, became a chase, as Sergeant Louis Platania put an end to a man driving a backhoe around recklessly and causing property damage.
When Vineland police officers attempted to stop an out-of-control backhoe, the driver ignored the command. The driver ran into houses, knocked over fences and overturned cars, including police vehicles. A pivotal moment arose when he set his sights on a senior living facility nearby.
Platania, a K-9 officer, responded by exiting his vehicle and chasing after the backhoe. He saw the backhoe driver push one of the police vehicles down the street.
Leaving behind his partner, Platania drew his sidearm and fired at the driver. Finally, the destruction ended.
“I couldn’t let what was happening injure somebody else, civilians or one of my guys,” Platania expressed. “I just knew that I had to stop him, and it’s unfortunate. I wish it didn’t happen, but it did.”
Platania, who has been on the job for 16 years, believes that both firearms training and instincts contributed to his response to the critical incident. He advises that you always have to be ready.
“I just hope everybody stays safe and pays attention to their training,” he stated. “When the time comes, if it’s your call, hopefully you make the right decision.”
In the end, Platania realized what resulted from making the right decision in this response.
“I’ve been to a few of these things where some of my friends have been in a situation,” Platania commented about being a Valor Awards winner. “I don’t look at it as me doing what I did and as a result of it, somebody losing their life, but me stopping somebody else from getting hurt.”