HACKENSACK - A veteran police officer is recovering from two gunshot wounds after an undercover drug transaction turned into a fight for his life.
The officer underwent surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center after he was shot by an armed suspect who confronted him outside a Garfield shopping mall. The undercover officer had been trying to purchase marijuana from a suspected dealer.
Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli is not releasing the officer's name but says he is a nine-year veteran of the Paramus Police Department. He says the injuries were not life-threatening and the officer is expected to make a full recovery.
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Molinelli says the officer was on loan to the Bergen County Narcotics Task Force Tuesday afternoon. He was unarmed and not wearing a bulletproof vest during the sting operation.
Authorities say 24-year-old Rafael Angel Vasquez, of Passaic, interrupted the deal and shot the officer while trying to rob him.
Investigators believe the robbery was planned. "In my judgement, this was a planned theft," says Molinelli. "They set this transaction in order to do a drug transaction but with no intention of carrying it out."
The Bergen County prosecutor says undercover operations always have backup, but the officer doing the buying or selling is especially vulnerable.
"This is what they do every single day, every single night, 365 days a year," Molinelli says. "But the officers are trained that at any moment, whether it's in a parking lot in Garfield or whether it's somewhere else, this is exactly what can happen. Narcotics, even in this county, is a dangerous practice."
Melvin Guzman, 19, of Garfield, and Patrick Morrell, 21, of Clifton, were also arrested in the incident.