Nassau County Police’s Sad Accounting
April 4, 2011
Nassau County police are quietly assessing whether their own procedures led to last month’s friendly-fire shooting of one of their own.
Publicly, officials have blamed a retired NYPD sergeant for creating the confusion that led one officer to fatally shoot another.
Needlessly killed was Geoffrey Breitkopf, 40, a 12-year veteran of the force.
But, away from the media’s glare, sources say that Nassau police are assessing whether careless oversight of Breitkopf’s unit and lax control of a violent crime scene set the stage for tragedy.
Police sources say that the Nassau department is examining why members of Breitkopf’s elite heavy weapons unit — the Bureau of Special Operations — were permitted to arrive at a crime scene wearing plainclothes while failing to prominently display their police IDs.
The sources say that Metropolitan Transit Authority officer Glenn Gentile didn’t realize that Breitkopf — dressed in plainclothes and carrying a rifle — was a cop, and shot him.
While Gentile was an outsider, even a uniformed Nassau cop on the scene did not realize that Breitkopf was a police officer, sources say.
That Nassau cop allowed Gentile and his partner to handcuff the fallen Breitkopf — as cops do criminals — after Breitkopf was shot dead and sprawled on the ground.
“There are definitely conversations about new procedures on the table,” said a police source. “Everyone knows this is a tragedy. No one wanted to say immediately that they are doing this.”
The incident that led to Breitkopf’s death began shortly after 8 PM on March 12, when Nassau police arrived at the home of Anthony DiGeronimo in Massapequa Park.
DiGeronimo had been threatening people in the neighborhood with a knife. One of them, 71-year-old Theresa Kelly, called 9ll.
Two uniformed Nassau County police officers responded and followed DiGeronimo inside his home. Police said the officers shot the knife-wielding DiGeronimo dead after he lunged at them.
They then sent a report over the radio of shots fired and requested an ambulance.
Two minutes later, a dispatcher advised officers rushing to the scene to “slow down,” indicating the emergency had ended.
Minutes later, however, two uniformed MTA officers from a nearby LIRR station —Gentile and his partner — arrived to offer assistance.
Other uniformed Nassau officers descended on the already crowded crime scene after the threat — DiGeronimo — had been contained.
In all, about 10 officers from the two departments were present.
Just minutes later, Breitkopf and his partner arrived. Both were in plainclothes. Their elite unit responds to high-priority calls and is the equivalent of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit. Its officers carry heavy weapons and are highly trained specialists.
But whereas the Emergency Service Unit responds to crime scenes in uniform or with windbreakers with the words “NYPD” prominently displayed, Nassau’s Bureau of Special Operations is apparently permitted to arrive at crime scenes in street clothes.
According to an account in Newsday, Breitkopf took an assault rifle from his car and walked past several uniformed cops towards DiGeronimo’s house, wearing his rifle on a sling around one shoulder, pointed downwards. He wore a badge hanging from his neck that identified him as a Nassau cop, although it’s unclear how visible his badge was in the dark.
As he crossed the lawn, someone, apparently referring to Breitkopf, shouted the word “gun.”
That person has been identified as John Cafarella, a retired NYPD sergeant from the Emergency Service Unit, who, according to Nassau PBA president James Carver, monitors police radio calls and is a regular at Nassau police crime scenes.
“He tried to control the crime scene,” Carver said in a telephone interview. “He was an outsider who didn’t belong there.”
Hearing “gun,” one of the two MTA officers grabbed Breitkopf by the arm. When Breitkopf resisted, Gentile drew his gun and from a few feet away fired a shot, killing him.
Why did Nassau police permit Cafarella to remain at the crime scene, where he was in a position to cause harm? Was there a supervisor in command? If so, where was he?
Why was Theresa Kelly’s son, who rushed to the scene after she had telephoned him, told by Nassau officers to leave while Cafarella was permitted to stay?
Said a former top NYPD official, who asked for anonymity: “Unless you get a boss on the scene who is going to start barking orders at the cops who show up, the less control you have.
“Of course, everyone wants to help. It is the nature of the job. But it is the responsibility of the supervisor, the sergeant or lieutenant or patrol supervisor to create a perimeter to stop people who don’t belong on the scene, to move spectators back — including off-duty or retired sergeants.
“I can understand the MTA cops responding. You can’t fault them for that. But you have to look for supervisors.”
It was unclear whether Gentile or his MTA partner approached a supervisor after they arrived, or whether there was a supervisor to keep tabs on the comings and goings of law enforcement personnel and civilians at the scene.
The former top NYPD official also questioned the instructions of the police dispatcher.
“When the first two Nassau officers radioed that they needed no further assistance, the dispatcher talked about ‘slow down.’ That is bull… Slow down tells them, ‘If you feel like taking a ride, come on by.’
“The command should have been: ‘No further assistance needed. Units on the scene resume patrol.’”
A reader says that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stopped returning phone calls on the matter from the FBI’s New York head, Janet Fedarcyk. This column can’t confirm that. What can be confirmed is that the JBRTF is history.
Set amid the pre-Knapp Commission era of the NYPD, The Savage City begins with the 1963 Wylie/Hoffert career girl murders on the Upper East Side and reconstructs how the police and two district attorneys framed George Whitmore, a semi-ignorant, 19-year-old black man, for the crime.
English meticulously details how detectives put words in Whitmore’s mouth that amounted to a confession; how District Attorneys Aaron Koota and Frank Hogan [the latter, known for his rectitude as Mr. District Attorney] went along with the frame-up; and how naïve Brooklyn judges verified the guilty verdict that left Whitmore facing the death penalty. Only through the persistence of a group of criminal defense attorneys and reporter Selwyn Raab was the verdict overturned — mercifully before Whitmore could be executed.
Whitmore is the reason there is no death penalty in New York State.
English next moves on to Dhoruba Bin Wahad — a.k.a. Richard Moore — a killer, thug and founder of the Black Panther Party in New York, which Hogan spent years investigating. This culminated with the arrests of what became known as the Panther 21 on charges of conspiracy to bomb department stores and police precincts. After a trial that lasted two years, a jury acquitted all 21 in less than a day of deliberations.
Finally, English focuses on Bill Philips, the crooked cop who became the Knapp Corruption Commission’s key witness and ended up spending the next 33 years of his life in prison for a double murder — possibly the only crimes he did not commit.
Equally guilty in English’s epic telling is the city’s blind and pliant media, in particular the Daily News, which deified the police and failed to hold authorities remotely accountable.
English detailed New York City in a violent moment of its past. But, before you breathe a sigh that such injustices can no longer occur today, recall the 1989 Central Park jogger and the four black teenagers who confessed to assaulting and raping her and went prison. In 2002, based on DNA evidence, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau indicted another man for the rape and maintained that the teenagers [a fifth was also convicted] had been framed by police who put words into their mouths.
Or just think about Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes and Jabbar Collins. Convicted in 1995 of fatally shooting Rabbi Abraham Pollock, Collins spent 16 years in prison before revelations of prosecutorial misconduct led a federal judge to order his release.
Finally, read some of today’s Daily News’s editorials, or the columns of Michael Daly and you’ll see that, when it comes to the police, little about that paper has changed in 45 years.
Copyright © 2011 Leonard Levitt