Video: Why they become cops… heroic duties and promotions in Morristown
By Kevin Coughlin
Two were praised for an arrest that didn’t make national headlines. Another won kudos for confronting a man brandishing a shotgun near the Morristown Green. Eight others were commended for rescue efforts during a tragic fire.
They deserve to be called Morristown’s Finest, in the opinion of Police Chief Pete Demnitz.
“We do it better than anyone around,” he said on Tuesday, at a council meeting packed with family and friends of cops receiving promotions or commendations for heroic actions.
Demnitz praised Officers Robert Mazza and Mark Underhill for using football tactics instead of their weapons to arrest a 20-year-old male who allegedly reached for a handgun late on Labor Day 2015.
The Chief said they would have been justified to shoot the suspect in that situation — an outcome that almost certainly have drawn national scrutiny at a time when shootings involving police and black men were sparking outrage. The Morristown suspect, Khyir Johnson, is African American.
Mazza, an offensive lineman for the Morristown High School football team back in 2005, aimed a “dry block” at the suspect while Underhill, an MHS swim team member in ’04, swatted the man’s hand from the gun, Demnitz said. A third officer was injured in the scuffle.
They had heard a gunshot while walking the beat on Flagler Street just before midnight. Things unfolded fast when they confronted Johnson walking towards them on Martin Luther King Avenue.
“Mark called out, ‘Gun!’… You don’t have time to think,” recounted Mazza who, like Underhill, was fairly new to the police department.
“You get real emotional afterward,” Underhill said. “You’re thankful everything went the way it did.”
Johnson’s grandmother expressed thanks at the time for the officers’ restraint. Johnson faces weapons charges.
Officer Collin Birch also made a tackle — of a man he saw toting a shotgun on Morris Street, across from the Post Office near the Green, one night in June 2015.
Birch “heard the unmistakable sound of a round being racked into that shotgun,” made a U-turn, left his patrol car, gave chase, and tackled the suspect, the Chief said.
Fortunately, the man tossed away the shotgun. But the chase was tense, acknowledged Birch, a four-year veteran of the bureau.
“You never know what he’s thinking,” said the Dover native.
‘I COULDN’T BREATHE’
Eight officers were honored for their quick response to a July 2015 house fire on Pine Street. Although a woman perished, police were able to rescue a man who was prepared to jump from the top floor.
Officer Rich Rispoli, first to arrive, convinced him to remain on the smoky ledge while he raced for a ladder from a fire truck that just pulled up.
Rispoli, who also is a volunteer fireman in Morris Township, took care to avoid hitting live power lines with the ladder.
Officer Yeison De Los Santos scrambled up, and the man handed him his dog. The billowing smoke was intense.
“I couldn’t breathe,” De Los Santos said.
Also honored for their actions that night were Officers Underhill, Bryan Holmes,
Christopher Little and Michael Alberto, and Sergeants Tyrone Jackson and Brian LaBarre.
Labarre was promoted to sergeant on Tuesday, along with Joseph Heuneman and Anthony O’Brien. Sworn in as new officers: Michael Cerick, a former security guard at Morristown Medical Center; and C.C. Johnson.
“She was a corrections officer, and a tough one,” the Chief said. “I’d put her up with anyone as my backup in a fight.”