In the spring of 2008, Dan Carione, Joseph Wolff and others visited the old police burial ground in Cypress Hill Cemetery. What they found broke their hearts. What was once a revered site in NYPD history appeared neglected and overgrown, with broken pathways and debris scattered about, they said.
“It was like Tombstone,” said Carione, a deputy inspector in the NYPD, referring to the old Wild West town in Arizona.
Worse still, a historic statue of a 19th century traffic cop that once graced the Brooklyn site had been stolen in 1966, leaving a barren pedestal.
Fired up by a sense of duty and obligation to officers buried at the location, Carione, Wolff, a retired lieutenant, and others pushed to have what was known as the Police Arlington cemetery restored. With help from Cypress Hills Cemetery, the circular burial ground — containing the graves of NYPD officers and spouses — was refurbished, its pathways repaired and grounds maintained, Carione said.
Saturday morning, nearly nine years since the group discovered the dilapidated gravesite, a contingent of NYPD officers and members of the fraternal NYPD Honor Legion will hold a special ceremony at Cypress Hills, the latest in a revival of an annual tradition that had faded away over the past few decades. The NYPD’s ceremonial unit will take part, as will some department brass. Former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly is expected to attend, although William Bratton is not.
The ceremony at Police Arlington, also known as the Police Memorial Garden, promises to be a poignant one, despite recent disputes over its future role. Overlooking the Cypress Hills National Cemetery, the area is unique.
“There is nothing like it in the United States, it is the only site dedicated for police officers,” Carione said.
Dating to the 1870s, the site currently has 144 burials, said an official at Cypress Hills, which owns the land but has granted burial rights to the Honor Legion. The oldest gravestone dates to 1864 and the newest is from 2015.
According to Carione, there are five officers buried at Police Arlington who died in the line of duty. But around New York City there are a number of historic graves of officers killed in action. Some cops have been forgotten, since officers were often so destitute when they died that they wound up in Potters Fields, Carione said.
One of the earliest burials is that of Eugene Anderson, who was killed trying to catch a burglar in Manhattan in July 1857. Anderson is buried in a family plot at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery. The most famous line of duty death is that of Det. Joseph Petrosino, who was shot dead in Sicily in 1909 while investigating Italian organized crime elements active in New York City. Petrosino’s body was brought back to the city with much fanfare and buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
A number of officers who died on duty are also buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Some were killed when they were run over during the early days of the automobile, said cemetery official Susan Olsen.
Saturday’s ceremony at Cypress Hills comes against a backdrop of a tug of war between Carione’s group and the Honor Legion over the police burial site, a tussle that has gone on since Carione and others pushed for an expansion of Police Arlington for the burial of NYPD retirees and the reinstallation of a replica of the stolen statue. A smaller version of the statue is on display at the Police Academy. The Honor Legion has installed a flagpole on the old pedestal to which a few modern plaques are affixed.
Records show that the Honor Legion gained control of the site from the old Metropolitan Police Benevolent Burying Association in 1951. Carione, Wolff and others have proposed outreach to elderly and poor NYPD retirees to offer them burial space. But the legion has resisted, Carione said.
Det. Oscar Hernandez, head of the Honor Legion, didn’t return telephone messages seeking comment. But in the past, legion officials have said the group focused on its scholarship program and wasn’t sure about replacing the statue.
“The dead cannot advocate for themselves, only the living can do that,” Carione said. “What we the living are trying to do, we are trying to restore what is uniquely part of NYPD history.”