DA says cop's fatal friendly fire justified

Nassau County Police Officer Geoffrey J. Breitkopf, 40, Nassau County Police Officer Geoffrey J. Breitkopf, 40, of the elite Bureau of Special Operations, was shot and killed March 12, 2011 after responding to a report of a masked man running through a Massapequa Park neighborhood with knives, authorities said. Photo Credit: NCPD

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Nassau County police Officer Geoffrey J. Breitkopf was fatally shot last March by another officer at a chaotic crime scene because that cop "reasonably" believed that Breitkopf -- plainclothes, armed with an assault rifle and not displaying his police shield -- posed a threat, said a report released Tuesday by District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

The almost yearlong investigation concluded that no criminal charges should be brought against MTA Police Officer Glenn Gentile for shooting Breitkopf, 40, in the chest on March 12, 2011. He was killed minutes after police shot dead a masked, knife-wielding man inside the Massapequa Park home of the suspect's parents.

Rice also said no charges were justified against Nassau police officers Paul Lewis and Richard McDonald in the shooting of Anthony DiGeronimo, who rushed at them with a knife and refused orders to "get on the ground," the report said.

"Officer Geoffrey Breitkopf was a dedicated police officer who honorably served his community, and his death in a friendly fire shooting . . . was a tragedy," Rice said in a statement

When Breitkopf, a member of the Nassau Police Department's Bureau of Special Operations, and his partner, Officer Hector Rentas, responded to the DiGeronimo home on Fourth Avenue, Breitkopf removed a department-issued M-4 assault rifle from the trunk of their unmarked car and headed to the house, the report said.

Gentile and his partner, Officer Jose Ramos, thought Breitkopf, who was wearing a black hoodie, was a civilian, the report said. They had responded from the Massapequa Park LIRR station, four blocks away.

"This investigation revealed that no one witnessed Officer Breitkopf identify himself as a police officer and no one recalled seeing his shield displayed," the report said.

As Breitkopf walked by, Ramos grabbed his shoulder with his left hand and the rifle with his right hand but Breitkopf yanked himself out of his grasp, the report said. Breitkopf also struggled with two other Nassau officers who "attempted to physically stop" him, the report said.

"Officer Gentile can make a reasonable claim that, out of concern for the safety of everyone present, he drew his weapon and fired a single shot at the individual he reasonably, but mistakenly, perceived to be dangerous," the report said.

Breitkopf's wife, Paula Breitkopf, of Selden, declined to comment on Rice's findings because she had not seen the report. Her lawyer, Jeffrey Kimmel, of Manhattan, said excessive force was used and the MTA cops were inadequately trained and supervised. He said he disagreed with the factual conclusions.

Kimmel said he believes that Breitkopf was wearing a shield or otherwise identified himself and that the police did know Breitkopf was a cop.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in a statement, said Breitkopf's death was tragic and accidental.

 

'A perfect storm'

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Nassau Police Benevolent Association president James Carver said he does not blame Gentile for Breitkopf's death.

"This was, unfortunately, a perfect storm of a lot of different things happening at one time that led to the tragic death of Geoff. I do not fault the MTA cop whatsoever, the actions that he took. He perceived a threat and reacted to that threat. I won't second-guess that."

Gentile, 34, was placed on sick leave after the shooting and returned to work on April 11 under "restricted or light duty" without his weapon, an MTA spokesman said. The officer, who joined the MTA Police Department six years ago, returned to regular duty in January, carrying his weapon.

David DiGeronimo, the father of Anthony DiGeronimo, said: "Justice, criminal justice? No. The truth will come out. I cry every day. I'll let the truth be known when it's all over."

Breitkopf, a 14-year veteran of the Nassau police department and a member of the elite BSO squad for eight years, was the first Nassau officer killed in a friendly fire shooting since 1976, officials said.

Nassau police said Tuesday that they instituted new crime scene protocols after Breitkopf's death.

The events leading to both shootings began about 8:10 p.m. last March 12, the report said. Police received a 911 call about a man in Massapequa Park, wearing black clothing, and with knives hanging off him. He was "scratching cars and frightening civilians," on Front Street, near Johnny McGorey's bar, the report said.

The man was later identified as DiGeronimo, an unemployed 21-year-old graduate of Massapequa High School.

Officer Paul Lewis responded and DiGeronimo refused to drop his weapons, according to the report. After the officer pulled his gun, DiGeronimo made an initial threatening move toward Lewis and then suddenly turned and fled to his parents' home, barricading himself in his bedroom.

DiGeronimo's mother and father "attempted to convince him to disarm and cooperate with the police," the report said. His father told cops: "He's not going to hurt anyone. Let me talk to him" and several officers entered the home, the report said. Lewis said DiGeronimo's father told him his son had "emotional issues."

Minutes later, DiGeronimo rushed out of the bedroom, wearing a mask with "his arms raised to his head while clutching a knife with the tip pointing upward," the report said. Officers Lewis and McDonald fired a total of seven times, striking him six times.

 

'Chaotic' scene

Outside the DiGeronimos' single-family home, "the crowd had become tumultuous and the scene was chaotic," the report said. "More and more civilians were arriving and officers were shouting commands to protect the integrity of the scene."

DiGeronimo's mother was banging on the home's side door, trying to get back inside. About 15 police officers from various agencies had responded. A retired New York City police sergeant, John Cafarella, shouted a profanity at Theresa Kelly, 71, a neighborhood woman who had initially called 911 about DiGeronimo, and kicked at her car door, the report said.

At the same time, Nassau officers threatened her son, Sean, with a baton and pepper spray.

While Breitkopf, a father of two sons, and Rentas were responding to the initial call, Rentas "heard a radio transmission to 'slow down,' indicating that there was no longer an imminent emergency," the report said.

When the pair arrived in their unmarked car, Breitkopf grabbed the M-4 assault rifle and Rentas recalled putting on his own shield, the report said.

Holding the rifle, Breitkopf made his way through the crowd toward the house and encountered Gentile and Ramos, the report said. Ramos tried to grab Breitkopf and the two Nassau cops tried to stop him.

"During this struggle, Officer Gentile observed that the ostensible civilian's assault rifle was raised, and moving, so that it appeared that the rifle was pointing at the officers involved in the struggle and others," the report said.

That was when Gentile fired one shot at Breitkopf, according to the report. The bullet entered Breitkopf's chest on the far right side, hitting his right lung, diaphragm, liver, heart, stomach and left lung before passing back out of his body, the report said.

After Breitkopf was shot, other officers, unaware he was a cop, tried to handcuff him, the report said. It wasn't until his partner, Rentas, shouted that Breitkopf was a cop that the officers stopped.

Two officers tried to revive Breitkopf and cut off his shirt but said they didn't recall seeing a shield, the report said.

Breitkopf was pronounced dead at 9:19 p.m. at Nassau University Medical Center.

"From Officer Gentile's perspective, Officer Breitkopf was an armed civilian who was using his firearm to menace officers at a scene where shots had already been fired," the report said.

With Tania Lopez, Matthew Chayes, Ellen Yan and Alfonso A. Castillo

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