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Fallen NYPD Det. Brian Simonsen mourned in communities where he grew up and patrolled

Simonsen was the first NYPD officer shot and killed in the line of duty in 2019. His loss has been felt statewide - flags have been ordered to fly at half staff and thousands are expected to attend his services.  

Friends and neighbors from the Riverhead community, on Wednesday, reflected on the life of slain NYPD Det. Brian Simonsen from Calverton. (Credit: Newsday / Stefanie Dazio;James Carbone;News 12 Long Island)

In the Calverton neighborhood where NYPD Det. Brian Simonsen lived, his pool parties and backyard barbecues were legendary. 

The man nicknamed "Smiles" was known as an honorary uncle to the neighborhood kids who flocked to the gatherings. He loved throwing the parties for just about any occasion — most recently the Super Bowl — and enjoyed celebrating with his large circle of friends. When he patrolled the streets of Richmond Hill, he was a calming presence, comrades said, with a knack for chatting up strangers and befriending people on his beat.

Those who knew him, including those whom he was sworn to protect, said he touched them with his kindness, whether it was buying a baseball mitt for a kid in his community or dropping by to see if a business owner on his beat needed a cup of coffee.

“Brian was a hero,” said Polo Savinon, 26, a regular customer at the bodega on the corner near the precinct where Simonsen bought bottled water. “When you’re able to communicate with your neighborhood and be an officer that has that human instinct, it takes away from that barrier that people have, communities have with law enforcement. You viewed him as a friend.”

The NYPD detective was shot in the chest and killed by friendly fire Tuesday night during an armed robbery in Queens in the neighborhood where he patrolled as a street officer and later a detective. He was 42.

Simonsen was the first NYPD officer shot and killed in the line of duty in 2019. His loss has been felt statewide — flags have been ordered to fly at half-staff and thousands are expected to attend his services.

Simonsen was also a native Long Islander who was part of the fabric of life in the communities of Riverhead and Richmond Hill, which now mourn him. He played on the Riverhead Town Police Department’s softball team and shopped “religiously” at Richmond Hill bodegas and ate chicken salads from a nearby pizzeria.

At Simonsen’s 102nd Precinct in Richmond Hill, where he had served since he was appointed to the force in 2000, a small memorial of candles and flowers graced the entrance, with purple and black bunting hung over the front doors.

And on Long Island, Simonsen's house, the site of so many summer parties in better times, instead became the place where neighbors, friends and comrades from the NYPD and local departments trooped over the lawn with coffee, doughnuts and flowers, filtering in and out of the home he shared with his wife, Leanne. 

A Nassau County police officer was also stationed outside the Seaford house of Matthew Gorman, the sergeant who was with Simonsen when he was killed and who was injured himself.
Several people came and went from the suburban home.

Simonsen, a 19-year police veteran, grew up in Jamesport and had lived in Calverton for the last decade.

“This is a very small fraction of the friends that he has. We’d need a football stadium to actually fill how many friends he actually had,” said Terrence LeGrady, his former NYPD partner, outside the Simonsen home, surrounded by a crowd of family, high school buddies and fellow officers. “Brian brought joy and happiness and light to the world, period. New York was just a small portion of that. The world lost, honest to God, one of the best.”

“He could walk into any situation, as crazy as it could possibly be, and he had the ability to calm everything down,” LeGrady said. “With never raising his voice and never raising his hands. He was a complete professional.”

Even before this staggering loss, his family had its share of heartbreak.

Simonsen’s sister, Melissa, died at age 13 in 1992 after she was struck by a car as she crossed the road, two sources confirmed. A Newsday story from the time said Melissa, a seventh-grader at Riverhead Middle School and an avid softball player, was struck by a car as she crossed Roanoke Avenue. The driver was not charged.

“This is a family that has known tragedy before,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Still, Simonsen opened his heart and his home to others.

Dave Mosciatti, 42, who lives three houses away, remembered how his kids, ages 12 and 9, and other neighborhood children would regularly swim in the Simonsen family's in-ground pool. They are now having trouble processing the news of Simonsen's death, he said, adding that his neighbor’s bright smile is “an impression I’ll have forever.”

“They let all of our kids go over there and hang out and swim,” he said of the Simonsens. “It was the center of the block.”

LeGrady said his partner was “Uncle Brian” to many children.

“If your kid was missing a baseball mitt, he’d go buy a brand-new mitt for the kid,” he said. “He was the most genuine, pure person that I’ve ever known.”

Neighbor Rosa Sanga, 50, sobbing in her car as she drove to her home around the block, said Simonsen always offered to do work around her house after her husband died.

“Let me know, I can do anything,” she said he told her.

His generosity extended to other police departments. Even though Simonsen worked for the NYPD, Riverhead Town police officers described him as, in essence, one of their own.

He grew up with many of the town’s officers, played on the Police Benevolent Association's softball team in the early 2000s and attended the funerals of their fallen officers.

“Even though he wasn’t a Riverhead cop, he was a big part of us,” said Riverhead Officer Rich Freeborn, a softball teammate.

Riverhead Sgt. Jill Kubetz agreed. “He loved working for the NYPD, but he loved being part of Riverhead,” Kubetz said. “It was part of Brian.”

Freeborn would often run into Simonsen around town. They last saw each other about a month ago at a funeral for a retired officer, he said.

“He honored fallen cops,” Freeborn said.

Kubetz met Simonsen when they were in eighth grade at Riverhead Middle School. They graduated from high school together in 1995, she said.

“He’s very much the same guy,” she said. “He cared very deeply for his friends.”

Simonsen was proud to be a detective, she said. “Brian loved being a police officer. It identified who he was at his core.”

Both officers agreed the nickname of “Smiles” defined him. “He’s in my phone as Smiles,” Freeborn said.

They described Simonsen as “the life of the party” who would chat up anyone. “He was literally friends with everybody,” Freeborn said. “He could make friends with perfect strangers. . . . Everybody knows Smiles.”

Kubetz said his sense of humor and kindhearted personality drew others to him.

“It was very easy to spend time with Brian and hang out with Brian,” she said. “He made everybody laugh.”

In Richmond Hill, those who knew him described a detective who seemed to be as well-known in their community as he was in the one he grew up in.

“He didn’t live by the shield, the shield lived with him,” Savinon said. “'Down to earth' would be the perfect way to describe him.”

Pizzeria owner Rosa Muto, 45, said Simonsen was “crazy” about her chicken salads — his healthy eating habits became a joke between them.

“He would even swing by to ask if we needed anything, coffee or whatever,” she said. “We would talk about the neighborhood and what would happen in the neighborhood. . . . It’s something that the community is going to feel for a while.”

She said she considered him a friend, rather than a cop on duty.

“It doesn’t matter whether he was a cop or wasn’t a cop, he was a friend. Always here for you for anything,” she added. “He was always there. It was just that kind of a relationship. It’s a sad loss. Too close to home.”

On Tuesday, Simonsen dropped off several shirts and pants at a nearby dry cleaner.

His photograph, on the front page of a newspaper, was in the store’s window the next morning.

With John Asbury and Michael O'Keeffe

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