James Russo, a former police and fire chief in Hempstead Village who fought gangs and a burgeoning crack epidemic during his nearly four decades as a cop, died April 11 at Nassau University Medical Center. He was 72.
The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest due to pneumonia, said his wife, Kathleen Russo, of Merrick.
He joined the police department in 1968 and retired in 2007 after serving for 17 years as the force’s chief. He became a volunteer firefighter with Hempstead’s Eagle Engine Co. 1 in 1964 and served as the department’s chief in 1984. He remained active with the fire department, attending meetings and handling administrative matters. Village officials don’t believe anyone else has served in both departments as chief.
“He was a great friend and a champion in the community,” Mayor Don Ryan said.
Born May 30, 1945, in Berea, Ohio, Russo grew up in Roosevelt and graduated from Hempstead High School. He later lived in Hempstead, Uniondale and Merrick.
Ryan said he had known Russo since the 1960s, when Ryan was a quarterback for a firefighter football team and Russo was a defensive tackle on another.
“He chased me all over the field,” Ryan said, laughing.
While Russo’s first love was the fire department — he inspired his son, James, of Merrick, to join Hempstead’s department and become a lieutenant in the FDNY — he was a pivotal figure in the police department as an uptick in crime coincided with the introduction of crack to the area.
“He had a lot of difficult policing decisions to make,” said Police Chief Michael McGowan, who joined the department when Russo was a lieutenant. “He formed specialized units and he expanded specialized units to combat that crime increase.”
Former Mayor James Garner called Russo “one of the greatest chiefs I had the chance to work with” and said he was instrumental in working with federal law enforcement nationwide to crackdown on gangs in the village. He also brought in a canine unit with a dog named Alf.
“We own these streets and not the gangs,” was Russo’s message, Garner said.
Fire Chief Steve Giardino called Russo a “staple in the firehouse” who mentored his family and other firefighters.
“I wouldn’t be chief without him,” Giardino said. “He made me realize it was something that I wanted to do and he helped me to get there.”
His brother Christopher Giardino, a former firefighter and current police officer and president of the department’s Police Benevolent Association, said Russo was like an uncle to him.
“As soon as I got on the fire department, he treated me like family,” Giardino said. “He’s like a legend.”
Russo pushed Giardino, who worked at the village’s water department at the time but had dreams of becoming a cop, to take the police Civil Service test. “If you want something better, you go for something better,” he said Russo told him.
Russo also served as the president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police and vice president of the Nassau County Municipal Police Chiefs Association.
In addition to his wife of 51 years and son, he is survived by daughter Cheryl Justiniano, of Bellmore; sister Diane Justice of Wantagh; half-siblings John Sadowski, of Glen Head, William Sadowski, of Long Beach, California, and Michelle Kentros, of Huntington Station; and four grandchildren.
Services for Russo were held April 16 at the Bellmore Funeral Home, followed by burial at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.