While providing closure to a crime that changed many lives 13 months ago, a guilty verdict for Jahmell Crockam also serves as a somber reminder to those serving in law enforcement that their lives are on the line daily.
What was possibly the first deadly shooting of a police officer in Ocean County's history, officers said, shows that crime is no longer something that's reserved for the cities.
"It brings home the reality that this is a dangerous job," said Manchester's Chief of Police Brian Klimakowksi. Officers can find themselves in situations in which they can be hurt — or worse — in an instant.
Lakewood patrolman Christopher Matlosz was conducting a routine patrol on Jan. 14, 2011, when he spotted Crockam and identified him as a man possibly wanted for outstanding warrants.
Matlosz called Crockam over to his patrol car's driver side window on August Drive in Lakewood. To avoid capture, the 20-year-old from Lakewood shot Matlosz, who was still seated, three times, a jury found on Thursday after about three and a half hours of deliberation.
"A police officer was killed for no reason," Klimakowski said of Matlosz, who lived in Manchester's Pine Lake Park section. "It puts closure to the whole situation."
Lt. Keith Germain of the Barnegat Township Police Department said the verdict gave officers "a feeling of relief."
"Everyone gets a sense of justice, and I think it’s reassuring to everyone that the system works. It was a very personal thing for everyone.”
It’s true that line-of-duty shootings are rare in Ocean County, Germain said, and that’s part of why the incident struck local officers so deeply.
“We sometimes get a little complacent,” he said. “You feel you can slip into that conventional wisdom that only cops in big cities get killed. We like to sterilize it and we like to make it a nice easy package for everyone, but the reality is that at times, this is a violent, ugly, nasty job.”
"It reminds me of how concerned I am for our guys on the street," said Brick Township Police Chief Nils R. Bergquist. "The nature of the work is different from what it was 10 or 15 years ago. They have to be much more vigilant these days."
Bergquist said justice was served in this case, but police officer line-of-duty deaths are on the rise, and the job of 'police officer' has crept into the top 10 dangerous jobs in America. Some experts have blamed staffing shortages and lower training budgets, he said.
"In Brick, we've always kept a focus on officer safety training, but it's difficult to find the balance between that additional training and all of the training requirements the state puts on us," he added.
Toms River Police Chief Michael Mastronardy said there were no reports of raucous celebrations or concerns with rioting after the verdict at the trial, held in downtown Toms River.
The news was broadcast over police scanner channels. Toms River Police assisted in covering Lakewood during the manhunt for a suspect following the hours after the shooting, and also assisted as the Lakewood force paid their respects to the fallen officer.
Following yesterday's verdict, the family found some of that closure.
"It's a good day," said Matlosz' fiance Kelly Walsifer in the courtyard of the Ocean County Justice Complex.
"That man," Walsifer said referring to Crockam, "ruined my life. Justice prevailed for Chris."
For those who work to provide closure for families and the community, the day marked the end of a process during which authorities from the Lakewood Police Department and Ocean County Prosecutor's Office found justice for Matlosz, a who gave his life while serving at 27 years old.
"It's a relief to the law enforcement community," Klimakowski said. "It's nice to see that justice was served in the case and [Crockam] will spend the rest of his life behind bars."
Crockam will be sentenced in Superior Court Judge Wendel E. Daniels' courtroom on March 22. The charges carry a sentence of mandatory life with no parole, said William J. Heisler, chief assistant Ocean County prosecutor.
The mayor of Howell — the township where Matlosz graduated high school in 2001 — said he was "glad" the trial is over.
"I'm glad justice seems to have been done and our thoughts and prayers are with the families," said Mayor Robert Walsh. "It was an unnecesary tragedy that should never have occurred. It's a tragic loss of life."
Walsh, who said that he knew Matlosz from the gym, will keep his thoughts with the fallen officer's family.
"I don't think there's ever closure over a death like that to the families that are involved," he said. "I've spoken to enough people that have lost children in their lives and I don't think closer ever comes especially after a senseless death."