2022 Valor Awards: Meritorious Service Awards and Unit Citations

The Hunger for the Job

Grabbing a bite to eat did not figure to be a dangerous mission for Essex County Sheriff’s Officer Juan Rodriguez on the night of Feb. 4. Off duty from his assignment to the Superior Court in Newark, Rodriguez was hungry. But when he exited his car to grab some food, it wasn’t a car hop there to greet him.

Two people with guns approached him. They pointed a gun to his head and wanted his car.

There was no way to know Rodriguez was a law enforcement officer. He was not in uniform. But these two assailants tried to mess with the wrong officer.

“I was able to rely on my military training,” explained Rodriguez, who is active U.S. Army and has done three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “I treated him like the enemy.”

Rodriguez actually unholstered his weapon as if he were going to give up. But then he quickly drew on the man holding the gun to his head.

“And then from there, I just don’t remember what happened,” he described shortly after receiving a Meritorious Service Award at the Valor Awards. “I brought him down, and from there, I think we struggled for a little bit. Everything’s a blur.”

Rodriguez does remember the man dropping his gun when Rodriguez drew. The other person fled.

From there, Rodriguez recalled the scuffle ensuing and being able to hold the man on the ground. Newark Police arrived shortly thereafter and made the arrest.

Obviously, these two men had no idea they had encountered a veteran military police officer who has been on with Essex County Sheriff’s for six years. As a result of all that service, Rodriguez has that love for defending freedom that enabled him to respond so swiftly and successfully on that night.

He confirmed that there is no way to explain why two men would just come at somebody with a gun pointed and want to take his car. But it made Rodriguez realize why he was there to answer
this call and pursue the calling of law enforcement.

“Of course they need people like us out there, because this world’s crazy and we’re there to make the town and the county safer,” Rodriguez added. “That’s the world we live in now, but hey, I guess he just picked on the wrong person.”

Unbreakable Bond

In the early hours of July 15, five Somerville officers were dispatched to a group home. They arrived on scene, where an armed resident posed an imminent threat to staff members.

And trust was the key factor in their response.

“Trust is everything,” Somerville Officer Michael Sergi said. “That’s how we survive, and that’s how we work together well.”

Anticipating each other’s next move, Sergi, Sergeant Timothy Pasquale and Officers Alexander Lora and Kevin Gilbert were prepared to de-escalate the situation. When they encountered
the man, he was holding a large knife in his hand.

Lora reached for his taser, commanding the resident to drop his weapon. The other officers drew their firearms to provide cover.

“We trusted Officer Lora with the taser while we had lethal cover,” Sergi explained. “We knew he wouldn’t bail on us. We knew he was going to do what was right. That’s how we work — trust.”

Suddenly, the man came at the officers. Lora deployed his taser, but it didn’t work. He tried it again; the man fell to the ground, dropping the knife.

As the officers attempted to restrain him, he fought back. And after an intense struggle, he was restrained and brought to a hospital.

Sergi and Gilbert credited their teamwork to that unspoken trust they have for one another. It’s a bond that has formed on the job and beyond.

“We try to be with each other outside of work as well,” Gilbert remarked. “Because that grows our bond even more and helps us understand how we think throughout the day.”

Sergi and Gilbert expressed their gratitude and appreciation at being recognized at the Valor Awards. And said it is a reflection of the brotherhood that they are ecstatic to be a part of.

“We don’t get many pats on the back, but when we do, we appreciate them,” Gilbert added. “We don’t look for them. It means a lot that the PBA did choose us, we’re thankful, and it’ll only drive us to do even better the next time.”

Essential Teamwork

In the blink of an eye, an ordinary day can take a turn.

“It was a pretty straightforward day, sunny day. I think we had a storm in the morning,” Ventnor City Police Officer Michael Arena recalled of the August 2020 shift that escalated with a call of a
distraught, bloodied man walking along a roadway.

What Arena and fellow Officers James Arentz, Pierre Mancuso, Scarborough and Lieutenant Bryan Gaviria encountered proved the value of teamwork. Their response earned them the Meritorious Service Award.

As the officers arrived, the decision was made to close the road to aid in efforts to talk with the man, with the goal of a peaceful solution to his situation. However, officers quickly recognized the
man was brandishing an “edged weapon.”

Arena, a 10-year-veteran, described the lengthy conversations conducted in hopes of calming the man down. However, things took a turn that threatened the officers’ safety when the man attempted to attack the officers.

“He was in a lot of distress, [and we were] just trying to provide any help that we could, but at that point, he just wasn’t cooperative,” Arena explained. “Unfortunately, he was able to rush us, and we had to take the appropriate action.”

Gaviria said news of the award brought on mixed emotions for him.

“It was a reminder of what we went through that day, and it was an honor that we were selected to come out and receive recognition for very heroic actions,” he explained, adding that his
officers displayed honor, integrity and bravery during the incident. “Teamwork is essential.”

In the bigger picture, Gaviria hopes the actions by officers from a small shore-town police department can help recast the negative narratives hurting law enforcement.

“We need to encourage our officers, we need to keep them motivated and show them … the public needs us. They want us, they love us, and we’re there for them,” Gaviria shared. “We have to be that reminder that there is still good in the world.”


When a call goes out about shots fired at a police officer, the all-hands on-deck mentality kicks in to find the shooter.

“You don’t really have time to think— just do your job,” said Sussex County Sheriff’s Officer Robert Schilling.

That was the situation in January 2021 after an elderly man opened fire on Newton police officers, prompting a quick response by fellow Newton officers and the Sussex County Sheriff’s

Their actions to locate the shooter and resolve the situation without any injuries led to a Unit Citation award for the Newton Police Department’s now-retired Chief Robert Osborn, Detective Sergeant Thomas Muller and Sergeant Michael Wolanski, as well Sussex County Sheriff’s Captain Lawrence Beller, Sergeant John Gray and Officers Robert Washer, Kenneth Farber and

After dispatch issued a description of the suspected shooter, Washer and Gray located a vehicle matching a description of what the man was driving after the shooting. Officers cornered the man
outside Newton Medical Center.

“He was trying to gain access when Officer Washer and Sergeant Gray first encountered him. He worked his way around the building, which is where we ended up disarming him and taking him into custody,” said Schilling, who has spent more than two decades with the sheriff’s office. “We honestly think he was trying to check himself in.”

The 30-minute incident, from shooting to apprehension, ended when three of the award-winning officers got the suspect on the ground to take him into custody, but even the end was still filled with tension.

“No one realized that he had actually thrown the gun when he went down, so when he [did], he had tucked his arms under his body. We just pried his arms out to try to find the gun. You always
treat them like they are going to fire again,” Schilling explained.

Fortunately, no further shots were fired.

“That’s the biggest thing. Nobody lost their life. It was done the best way it could have possibly been done,” Schilling added.

Flood and Guts

As Hurricane Ida raged, the East Hanover PD Emergency Services Unit received a call on Sept. 1, 2021, from the Livingston PD to provide aid.

There was a mayday call from seven people who were swept away in flooding. And they needed search and rescue as soon as possible.

Members of the unit, like Sergeant Jesse Novalis, who has been on the job for 16 years, immediately responded. But what the team didn’t know was that the men and women trapped in the flood included three Livingston police officers and two Livingston firefighters.

“Once we heard that it was police officers that were in trouble, it changed it for us,” Novalis recalled. “It went from trying to help everyday people, to trying to help officers, which made it a little more intense for us and a little more important. And we were thinking, ‘We had to get there as quickly as we could to try to help out.’”

The unit, which also included Kevin Croker, Francis Franco, Brian Stevens and Robert Jordan, prepared for the mission at hand. After wading through the flood waters more than 100 feet from the roadway, the team officers located the individuals, who had been trapped in the water for up to 45 minutes.

“It was just a relief that everybody who was stuck in the water was able to get out without any serious injuries,” Novalis remarked. “There were some minor ones, but, again, it was a relief that they were able to get out of that scary situation.”

Looking back on the lifesaving moment, Novalis noted how the intense training his team had received beforehand had enhanced their ability to work together in this situation.

“It’s obviously a great honor to be here,” added Novalis. “So many great awards were given out tonight, so just to be a part of it is special.”