One Police Plaza

The Hasidic Scandal's First Suicide

May 16, 2016

Last week’s suicide of an NYPD inspector has added a new and heartbreaking dimension to the burgeoning police scandal that appears to focus on two Orthodox Jewish businessmen linked to Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Inspector Michael Ameri, the commanding officer of the Highway Division, shot himself in the head in his unmarked police vehicle Friday near the Bergen Point Golf course in West Babylon, Long Island after reportedly having been questioned by the FBI.

The feds reportedly were also reviewing the escort logs of the Highway Unit, which Ameri had headed since 2014. Police sources say the logs include, among other things, records of escorting the relatives of recently deceased Hasidics to the nightly 10:30 El Al Airline flight to Tel Aviv after the bodies have been cleared by the medical examiner so they can be quickly buried, as Jewish law prescribes

As far as we know, no criminal charges were pending against Ameri, who had also headed the 78th Precinct near where de Blasio lived. Nor had he been transferred or placed on modified assignment as were nine other chiefs and inspectors.

Roy Richter, the head of the captains union, of which Ameri was a board member, said he had spoken with Ameri on Thursday to assure him that the sudden retirement of a lieutenant under him did not reflect negatively on Ameri.

So why would Ameri kill himself?

“Here’s a guy who was respected by his colleagues,” said a former top police official, “who knew the mayor and escorted the Pope when he visited the city last fall. But in his own eyes, he had failed the department. The shame becomes unbearable.”

Said a chief who has also been implicated in the scandal: “When you sit around, your mind takes over. It beats you up. In his mind he [Ameri] saw a mouse and thought it was a bear.”

Said Richter: “You wake up at 3 a.m. and delve into every nanosecond of your past experience that has been called into question.”

For Ameri, this may have included his appearance at a Purim party in the spring of 2014 at the home of Jeremy Reichberg, one of the Hasidics on whom the feds are focusing. Two others implicated in the scandal, Deputy Inspector James Grant and Deputy Chief Michael Harrington, also attended, along with a Deputy Commissioner, police sources say.

We’ve been down this road before. In 2008, Lieutenant Michael Pigott made a tactical misjudgment. Pigott ordered an officer to Taser a naked and emotionally disturbed man, perched on a second-floor ledge of his Brooklyn building, who was menacing the cop trying to rescue him. The man fell head first on to the pavement and died.

Pigott took responsibility for the death and publicly apologized to the man’s family. Nonetheless, the department charged he had violated department guidelines and stripped him of his badge and gun. Eight days later, he broke into a fellow officer’s locker, took his gun and put a bullet in his head. A suicide note said he feared being arrested and didn’t want his family seeing him in handcuffs or behind bars. He left his note alongside pictures of his three children.

In the 1990s, amid the corruption scandal in the 30th Precinct, Captain Terrence Tunnock, a 28-year veteran, informed Internal Affairs that one of the corrupt cops had lied to him. Although he was not involved in the scandal, the department’s code of silence apparently weighed on Tunnock, so much so that he couldn’t live with himself for having turned in his fellow officer. While his wife made breakfast, he walked into the bedroom of his Bronx home and shot himself in the head with his off-duty revolver.

A second suicide in the 30th Precinct followed. A third officer locked himself inside a precinct bathroom and threatened to blow his brains out. Then-Chief of Department John Timoney pleaded with prosecutors to complete their investigation before another cop killed himself. His efforts backfired. A whispering campaign against him began, accusing him of being “soft” on corruption.

We may be in a similar situation here. The danger is whether Ameri’s suicide becomes contagious. Especially because, unlike the 30th precinct scandal which largely focused on a single precinct, this one has political overtones, touching on the mayor. It’s unclear where the investigation, run by crusading U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, is heading.

Richter says he is concerned about the mental health of Grant, who was placed on modified assignment and whose guns have been taken from him after allegedly accepting cash and diamonds from Reichberg. “Much of his support network has been taken away,” says Richter. “Missiles in the press have been thrown at him from every direction.”

Richter added that the FBI was preying on veteran commanders like Grant and Ameri — whose years as police officers taught them to cooperate with federal authorities — by arriving at their homes and questioning them and family members without a lawyer to represent them.

Walter Mack, the Deputy Commissioner of Internal Affairs during the 30th Precinct scandal, says it’s essential for Internal Affairs to play a role in questioning cops together with the FBI. “Nobody knows cops like cops,” he says. “The department can’t let the FBI run the whole show.”

It may be time for Police Commissioner Bill Bratton or someone above him to have a discussion with Preet Bharara before another officer takes his life. Unfortunately, that someone won’t be Mayor Bill de Blasio because his 2013 mayoral campaign is also under investigation.

Copyright © 2016 Leonard Levitt