Monmouth County officers humbled to be honored with the best of the best
By Mitchell Krugel
The lights in the grand ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel dimmed to leave a white spotlight glowing on the stage. The gong and other accompanying sound effects that come when “Law and Order” or some other TV cop show hits a climax then reverberated.
Kathryn Morris, who many in the ballroom knew as Detective Lilly Rush from the TV show “Cold Case,” began to narrate in a low-toned, dramatic voice. She revealed a story about the next group of officers being celebrated at the 2023 NAPO Top Cops Awards.
“Earlier in the evening, you saw several great top cops from Phoenix who put their lives on the line to rescue an infant. In situations like these, when a child’s life lays in the balance, everything is ratcheted up more than a notch. These moments call for split-second decisions and precision marksmanship. Those traits run full display in this next case of top cops from Jersey.”
Morris was one of several stars from TV cop shows to serve as presenters at the Top Cops banquet. They narrate stories about law enforcement officers who have been chosen by NAPO’s executive board as the best of the best from the previous calendar year.
The stars come out to bring a truth-is-more-dramatic-than-fiction to the presentations. But her narration still left the nearly one thousand people in the ballroom incredulous over the response that led Howell Township Local 228 member Daniel Murphy, Middletown Township Local 124 member Omar Akel and Manalapan Township Local 229 member Eric Voorand to be recognized as Top Cops at the 2023 awards on May 12 during National Police Week.
“Some of the body cam footage from the incident has been made public. As has the footage from the surveillance camera on a neighbor’s front porch,” Morris continued. “It showed just how well these officers performed in a moment of high crisis for an infant’s life.”
NJ State PBA members may remember the response that Murphy, Akel and Voorand made on Nov. 5, 2021, as part of their assignment to the Monmouth County Emergency Response Team. A nine-hour standoff with a wanted murderer came to a head when he emerged from the house using a two-week-old infant as a human shield.
They were honored at the 2022 NJSPBA Valor Awards for their actions. That night, Murphy choked up remembering what happened to save that little girl. Akel and Voorand didn’t say much either, other than to express their gratitude for being recognized and that the baby went home safely. And that they did, too.
At Top Cops, all three officers maintained that same demeanor, some of which is prompted by what they cannot say because the case is still under investigation. What seemed even more apparent at Top Cops is that the last thing these officers want is to draw attention to themselves.
When they did step up to receive the Top Cops trophies, Murphy and Akel stood side by side while Voorand, the sergeant in the group, made a short and sweet acceptance speech thanking NAPO, their chiefs and their families.
And then he spoke the words that mattered most to these three Top Cops.
“These two guys, I wouldn’t want to be up here with anyone else,” Voorand announced. “I would also just want to let you know we’re active as part of the SWAT team, and as the three of us are honored, we’re not the only ones who were there. It was a total team effort. Everybody should be honored for it because it wasn’t just us. It was everybody.”
Post awards, Murphy related that he had no idea Tops Cops was going to be so extravagant. The Jersey boys even shied away from the grandeur of the night, perhaps thinking they were not worthy.
“It’s very humbling seeing everybody else here. All these other stories are wild compared to ours,” he explained.
The story of what happened that November night in Long Branch has become legendary. The Monmouth County team attempted to execute a warrant at a home where Mark Walker, a career criminal who was wanted for murder, had been staying.
When the officers entered, Walked grabbed the two-week-old baby, retreated to a back bedroom and slammed the door. When the officers attempted to open the door, Walker began shooting through the door. He hit an officer in the leg. They retreated, and the Emergency Response Team quickly set up a perimeter around the residence.
Fast forward nine hours to 2 a.m. when Walker said he was going to surrender. But he set the house on fire to create a distraction, then came out firing, using the newborn as a shield.
There’s no way to explain how you respond to such a situation. Other than to call it training and instinct, which led to taking out Walker without harming the baby.
Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Detectives John McCabe attended this Top Cops Awards. Afterward, he ventured an explanation about how these officers responded.
“When you talk about the heroes up there that had to use their weapons in the defense of their selves and others, I mean, that’s a testament to the career that we’re involved in,” McCabe commented.
Murphy’s marksmanship took out Walker, and then he scooped up the baby. When he finally arrived home that day, he scooped up his young daughters Nora and Aubrey and held on tight for a while. A feeling has developed after the fact that he will never let go of.
“I like the fact that I can make a difference. I know that we do that all the time, but you don’t always see it,” Murphy related. “And after this incident, it definitely woke me up. We can make a big difference in people’s lives.”
Murphy, Akel and Voorand continued to deflect the spotlight as they have all along and through all the awards and honors that have come to praise their efforts on that November night. When the spotlight at Top Cops faded, however, and the house lights came up, Akel shared a perspective that emphasized what should be the legacy of this achievement.
“It’s a lifetime achievement I’m very proud of and I’m thankful to represent my community, my agency, my SWAT team,” he said. “I’m fortunate to receive an award, but I’m really just fortunate to be alive and to be at this.”
The response that NAPO titled “Three Cops and a Baby” in the program detailing all the award-winning efforts distributed at the banquet left Murphy, Voorand and Akel reluctant to take credit for. They seemed to be more comfortable calling it recognition for a county-wide team effort.
But this was definitely a night to celebrate the way law enforcement continues to make a difference. Accordingly, members of each of their departments as well as a county contingent came to the Top Cops Awards. Among them was Monmouth County Prosecutor Raymond Santiago, who gave a statement that will resonate beyond any awards.
“These guys exemplified what valor and heroism really are,” Santiago proclaimed. “I applaud all their efforts, their professionalism and the tactics they utilized through the entire incident.”
Standing With The Best
West New York Local 361 members honored at NAPO Top Cops Awards
By Mitchell Krugel
Photos by Ed Carattini Jr.
The 13th annual NAPO Top Cops Awards dinner had come to the part when officers were called out for being among the best of the best. West New York Local 361 members Daniel Hernandez, Wendell Oms and Ruben Funes Jr. joined law enforcers from across the country – and beyond – on stage to be recognized with honorable mention for 2022.
They stood shoulder to shoulder with sisters and brothers from Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, Las Vegas, Philly, Concord, New Hampshire, Rochester, New York, Portland, Baltimore, Nashville and the U.S. Air Force Security Forces. Since their response to the domestic that turned violent with the wife-beater shooting at them on June 3, 2022, the West New York trio have been to hell and back over their instinctive bravery that night.
But now, rubbing elbows with officers who endured similar situations, Hernandez, Oms and Funes realized just where they stood.
“It’s empowering to see things like this,” Detective Hernandez declared. “You see people that are legitimate, real-life heroes being awarded. And you see all these other stories from other people and it’s good.”
The opportunity to attend the Top Cops Awards that are part of National Police Week in Washington, D.C., allowed Hernandez, Oms and Funes to read all about the stories and responses that earned the other officers honorable mention recognition. Their facing down and taking out the shooter was shared on the pages of the Top Cops program that left both Funes and Hernandez summing up each of these mentions in one word: “wild.”
There was the one about the Huntsville, Alabama police shutting down a bar fight that turned into a shooting. And LAPD officers tracking a “Mayday” from a pilot of single engine Cessna crash landing on railroad tracks. And rescuing the pilot as a train headed toward the plane.
So alongside an officers rescuing people as their car burst into flames, apprehending a fleeing gunman and taking down a drug dealer waving a gun, the Local 361 members had every reason to stand tall and be proud with this group.
“It’s great to come to an event like this to see so many people that back the type of work that you do,” Funes added. “It makes you feel more confident and comfortable in your role as a police officer.”
West New York received a call that a woman’s life was in jeopardy from a man who had been beating her on June 3. Hernandez, Fumes and Molina arrived on the scene to find the woman had gotten away, but the man, Kevin Collindres, was still in the house.
Hernandez spoke with the woman, while Molina and Funes rang the doorbell and then entered the house. Collindres came toward them with his hands behind his back, yelling at the officers then firing at them.
Molina and Funes pulled back, but Collindres burst through the front door still firing. Oms had arrived at the scene by then and was waiting. He ended the threat.
Of course, there’s no feeling quite like seeing nearly a thousand people packed into the ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel standing and cheering for every single award winner. But hanging out and sharing stories with other officers at Top Cops seemed to be the best reward from being honored.
Perhaps it’s being around like-minded people that makes it so memorable. Or being with law enforcement officers who know that the mission of each one of these responses is the same: stop the bad guys, uphold the law and get home safe.
“Yeah, we chatted with a some of them,” Hernandez related. “Very great people. I mean, they’re awesome.”
Added Funes: “It’s nice knowing that we’re not the only ones that went through it. There’s a lot of officers in here that went through it, and it’s just we’re not alone and we have each other’s backs.”
Being honored at NAPO Top Cops Awards an indescribable feeling for Dunellen Local 146 State Delegate Joe Dudley
By Esther Gonzales
Dunellen Local 146 State Delegate Joe Dudley walked across the stage at the 30th Annual National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) Top Cops Awards in Washington, D.C., on May 12. And after receiving his Certificate of Nomination Award, he paused for a moment and listened to the applause from hundreds of law enforcement officers from across the country, saluting his service.
These were the men and women who had gone above and beyond in the line of duty to save lives and protect their communities. And although Dudley admits he is usually a man of many words, this moment for him was indescribable.
“It was very, very humbling to be standing up there in front of that group of peers and in front of a room like this,” Dudley explained. “I was unbelievably surprised by it and very honored.”
Dudley was nominated to be a Top Cop, which recognizes the best responses in agencies throughout the country and federal agencies, for his heroic actions on Sept. 3, 2022. When he first learned that his name had been submitted for an award, he couldn’t believe it.
Attending the dinner where the nominees are honored and hanging out in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel with the celebrities who present the Top Cops awards could leave any law enforcement officer awestruck. Count Dudley among those.
“This is just a whole other level,” he added. “Being here in a room like this in the nation’s capital and then standing in front of a room like this, it’s just very special.”
Thinking back to what brought him to this moment, Dudley recounted his response to the incident on Sept. 3, when he responded to a call of a house fire.
When Dudley arrived at the scene, smoke billowed from every window. He immediately rushed into the house, which was engulfed in flames, desperately looking for signs of life. And in a rear bedroom, Dudley found a 77-year-old man, who was reluctant to leave the house.
After getting the other resident safely out, Dudley lifted the man from the flames and carried him out of the house to safety. The man was later transported to the hospital, where he recovered from smoke inhalation. After ensuring the man was safe, Dudley also was treated for smoke inhalation.
By putting his life on the line in the face of grave danger and running into the blazing fire, Dudley was just doing his job, he submitted. He was adamant that any officer would have responded the same way.
“Most of us just do what we have to do,” Dudley related. “I think if you asked any one of the guys here, they would tell you exactly what I would say: that I don’t look back and think I did anything special the day that I went into the fire and pulled that guy out.”
As he held his award, grinning from ear to ear, Dudley confirmed what being recognized at Top Cops means to all of those who are honored.
“This is one more thing that reminds you of the best parts of this job,” Dudley added. “It reminds us every once in a while that people do notice. If you do this job and you love what you do, [saving lives] is going to be an inherent character trait and you’re just going to do it. And if it happened again tomorrow, I would do it tomorrow.”