Karen Dale has for two months been afflicted with agonizing despair, sadness, loneliness and guilt. The emotions come in waves, reminiscent of the decades of memories spent with her husband, Gulia, that she holds close.
Family trips. Fishing excursions. Home-cooked meals. Family laughter and jokes.
“The memory that sticks out in my mind is when our first daughter [Tori] was born,” Dale, of Newton, said by phone. Dale’s voice was somber and weak as she recalled her husband’s reaction to their first-born over 25 years ago.
“He was so proud. He had a big smile on his face,” she said. “I remember him holding her in front of me and she was just flailing her arms.”
But despite having jovial memories of her husband dating as far back as 1982, when they first met, Karen Dale now struggles to shake their last moments together. Gulia Dale III, a 61-year-old Black man and U.S. Army veteran, was fatally shot on the Fourth of July by white Newton Police Officers Steven Kneidl and Garrett Armstrong. Karen Dale constantly relives the moment she stood on the front lawn and watched as her husband was killed.
“I called for help for my husband because he was suicidal. I called them for help, not for murder,” she said. “I was a witness to my husband’s murder.”
Karen Dale said she was “fearful” her husband would harm himself and anticipated police would respond and help. Dale did not want to go into the details of what transpired before to police arrival, but said a plethora of fireworks could have triggered memories of his time in combat.
“I really just couldn’t tell you what happened that night,” she said. “He wouldn’t talk about what was bothering him, so maybe it just came to a head.”
The 9:30 p.m. shooting outside the Dale family home on Clive Place lasted 15 seconds and occurred just four minutes after Karen Dale’s call. Gulia Dale was backing his truck out of the driveway when one officer arrived and blocked him from the front. A second officer who arrived moments later blocked Dale’s truck from behind.
An officer can be heard yelling “Get out of the truck” eight times before urging Dale to “get on the ground” twice. Dale is seen in the footage exiting the vehicle, opening a rear door and reaching inside. He then returns to the driver’s seat before quickly exiting with “an object in his hand,” according to a release by the Attorney General’s Office.
Officers fired several rounds, and a .45-caliber Glock 21 firearm was found near Dale’s body. The officers’ lawyers say Dale brandished the weapon when he was shot.
The life of Gulia Dale
Dale was slated to retire this month from his dream job as an equal opportunity specialist for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon. He was looking forward to spending more time with family, since his job kept him in Washington, D.C., during the work week, Karen Dale said.
Gulia Dale, who served three tours in Iraq and was activated on 9/11, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition that floods the brain with memories from past trauma. Statistics show that 11 to 20 of every 100 veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom have PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dale, his wife said, told her his time in the military was “dangerous,” but he never spoke about it, nor did family press him to talk.
He was awarded at least 18 accolades during his tenure in the military. Gov. Phil Murphy posthumously awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal, and the U.S. Army awarded him the Global War on Terrorism medal.
Charles Sciarra, Armstrong’s attorney, called Dale’s death “sad and tragic” but said he was certain the officers followed all protocols and procedures.
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“The man reached into his vehicle and came out with a gun, which was clearly seen, and he brandished it at a law enforcement officer,” Sciarra said, calling the incident a “no-win situation.”
“If the police violate their oath and hide behind their cars instead of engaging the threat and the guy drives off and winds up on a shooting spree,” he said, “then everyone would be screaming: ‘The coward cops let him get away!’ “
The officers acted in accordance with their training and experience pursuant to the state’s use-of-force guidelines, said Anthony Iacullo, Kneidl’s attorney.
“The tragic and unfortunate circumstances these officers found themselves in on this July Fourth evening were not created by them,” Iacullo said. “There actions were legally appropriate and justified.”
The Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, an arm of the state Attorney General’s Office, is investigating the shooting, and a grand jury will be tasked with considering charges against the officers, per state guidelines.
But in the aftermath of the holiday shooting, family members and advocates say videos show police failed to make any efforts to alleviate the tension.
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Police reform, claims of racial discrimination
Jesse McCullough described his cousin as an easygoing, funny and calm person who often kept his feelings inside. He did not have an angry bone in his body and treated everyone equally, McCullough said.
But on that holiday evening, Dale was “taken down by the very people he served to protect,” McCullough said, referring to Dale’s time spent in the Army and in the National Guard.
Armstrong, who was hired last fall, and Kneidl, hired in 2019, could have engaged with Dale and attempted to de-escalate the situation by asking a series of questions pertaining to his mental health, McCullough suggested: “Is there anything wrong? Can we help you? Talk to us. We’re here to help.”
“Now you covered yourself, you did the right thing,” McCullough said. “Anything that happens after that point, OK, but you gave the man a chance to live.”
McCullough said Dale often kept his symptoms of PTSD inside, but he was aware that Dale was sensitive to loud noises. Valerie Cobbertt, Gulia Dale’s sister, said she knew never to slam a door near Dale and learned that when her brother was working at Picatinny Arsenal in Morris County for several years, he would sometimes be sent home at times of weapons testing.
The lethal encounter stirred up questions in Cobbertt’s mind over why social workers or trained experts in de-escalation or mental health were not called to the scene.
A nationwide call for racial justice and police reform sparked by the recent killings of Black men and women has many speaking out against police shootings involving those experiencing mental health illnesses.
Since the start of 2015, 6,557 people across the nation were killed by police, according to a database created by the Washington Post. Of that number, 1,430 people — or roughly 1 in 5 — with a history of mental illness have been shot and killed by police in the U.S., the data shows. The database was updated Sept. 10 and has yet to include Dale’s death.
“A person shouldn’t lose their life because they’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition,” Angela Kimball, national director of advocacy and public policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told USA TODAY.
The concerns about mental health have sparked some change nationwide: In the wake of the Breonna Taylor shooting in Louisville, Kentucky, officials in the state’s largest city put money toward co-responder models that could send behavioral health professionals on calls with officers. In Eugene, Oregon, a two-person team not involving officers responds to calls for mental health crises.
Cobbertt compared the shooting with an incident in January when an 80-year-old white man fired two shots toward Newton officers after he called police and said he had a gun and planned to kill himself. Officers did not fire their weapons, and the man fled in his car and later was taken into custody. He underwent medical treatment and was charged with attempted murder.
Sussex County officers undergo 40-hour crisis intervention training, working with mental health professionals to learn de-escalation methods during encounters with individuals with special needs, Francis Koch, Sussex’s chief law enforcement officer, said during an online symposium in April. First Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Mueller said officers are trained that any force used against a citizen “must be reasonable, necessary and proportional” with deadly force as the “absolute last resort.”
It was not immediately known what recent training the officers have had, and Newton’s police chief has declined to comment on the case.
Before leaving his post, former Attorney General Gurbir Grewal made sweeping changes to the state’s 20-year policy on police use of force. All 38,000 officers in New Jersey will be barred from using physical or deadly force against civilians except as a last resort, according to the policy, which goes into effect next year.
“We’re going to try to de-escalate — that’s a duty we have,” Grewal said when he made the December announcement.
But Dale’s family said their concerns are much bigger than that and fear that officers reacted negatively once they realized Gulia Dale was a Black man.
Both Cobbertt and McCullough raised concerns over the body camera footage and 911 calls, believing that the dispatcher who answered the phone identified Gulia Dale as a “Black male.”
During the 911 call, the dispatcher twice tells responding officers, “[Redacted] male with a weapon, firearm” and again “[Redacted] male with a gun.”
But Jana Robinson, a deputy attorney general in the state Office of Public Integrity and Accountability, said in response to an inquiry that the word “did not pertain to any demographic information regarding Mr. Dale, but was made to protect the reasonable expectation of privacy.”
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Regardless, Karen Dale still believes that once officers were first made aware of her husband’s skin color, they perceived him as a threat and not as someone suffering from a mental health disorder.
“I think [officers] act differently; it’s programmed in them to act differently,” Karen Dale said. “They don’t see [Black people] as their equals.”
“I wish cops didn’t see our skin color as a weapon and instead wish we could see each other through the eyes of God, with compassion and love,” she added.
Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate: Washington Post data shows that while they account for less than 1% of the U.S. population, Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.
McCullough agreed: “Why do we have to fight so hard to let you know, ‘Hey, we’re human just like you, we bleed like you, we’re people just like you, why are you doing this?’ ”
And change can begin with having discussions on a community level, he said.
Karen Dale, meanwhile, is seeing a counselor to help work through the trauma. She sees the situation, she said, as having been her fault.
“I should have never called police, because police don’t act favorably with Black people, in my opinion,” she said. “That proved to be the truth that night.”
That night was the first time she called 911. And it will be the last, she said.
Lori Comstock can be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.