Cop death conjures tough memories for dad

Michael Califano, left, and Geoffrey J. Breitkopf were Michael Califano, left, and Geoffrey J. Breitkopf were among 100 Nassau County Police Academy recruits in the class of 1998. Both men died in the line of duty in 2011. Photo Credit: Handouts

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Michael Califano Sr., 71, hoped he wouldn't see another Nassau police officer die in the line of duty on the Long Island Expressway.

But Thursday's early morning crash that killed Officer Joseph Olivieri brought back horrific memories of his son's death in February 2011, Califano said.

The son, a 44-year-old patrolman from Wantagh also named Michael, died at a nighttime traffic stop on the westbound LIE at Exit 39. A truck that police said was driven by a man who had dozed off slammed into Califano's patrol car.

"You never forget. You can never get over it," Califano said by telephone, his voice quavering. He spoke after television news shows replayed images of his son's crash -- images he'd never seen. "I didn't realize how bad his own car was mangled," Califano said quietly.

That crash -- Nassau's first line-of-duty death since 1993 -- spurred a federal road safety audit of the 7.2-mile stretch of the LIE between Exits 35 and 41. Califano's death followed 24 other instances of on-duty police injuries while working this stretch of the LIE.

The audit led to a range of safety improvements and a pledge from state transportation officials to construct 10 emergency pull-off areas -- five in each direction -- to make it safer for police doing traffic stops on the narrow western portion of the LIE.

Four pull-offs are to be built by the end of the year, widening the roadside by 10 feet at each of the sites.

Other improvements were undertaken in the past year. Brush was cleared from lighting, and vegetation trimmed to improve visibility. Old signs that required electric lighting have been replaced with more reflective signs. Flexible rubber markers have been installed in center median sections and along roadside guide rails. And rumble strips were added at exit and on-ramps.

Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for AAA New York, said the addition of the pull-offs would aid officers making traffic stops. But the addition of limited-access HOV lanes in 1992 removed shoulder space in the road's center and along the edge "so there is less safe space," he said.

Thursday's crash shows how dangerous responding to accidents is for road safety personnel, Sinclair said. "Traffic is bearing down on you, and if motorists are not looking well down the road it can create problems like this," he said. "The characteristics of the crash left this officer in a vulnerable, highly dangerous situation."

Califano implored drivers to slow down -- especially when nearing a police car with lights flashing: "The cars are speeding. It says 55 [mph]; nobody's doing 55 -- I don't do 55 -- but we have to take more care," he said.

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