A terrible auto crash two years ago that left 2-year-old Riordan Cavooris of St. James with a fractured skull forms the focus of a new and jarring police scandal. In it, the Suffolk County Police Department once again has given a hideous kind of privilege to one of its own.
The SCPD’s inadequate investigation following this calamity belongs in the same bulging file as numerous other instances where proper practice collapsed — inside the insulated and tribe-like culture of the SCPD. Among other cases, records obtained by Newsday under new state disclosure laws have detailed the department’s investigative wrongdoing that followed an off-duty Nassau cop’s unjustified 2011 shooting of a cabdriver.
But the Cavooris case is not merely another instance of an officer shielded by colleagues from the consequences of bad behavior.
What’s glaring here is that the crash — exposed in suspenseful and painstaking detail by Newsday’s investigations team — occurred on Aug. 10, 2020. By that point a regional and national movement was demanding better police accountability. Various steps have been taken all over.
Who on the street or in the precincts still hasn’t gotten the message that failing to deal with wrongful actions by their own is unacceptable?
ERRATIC DRIVING ON VIDEO
First there’s the off-duty road behavior of veteran Suffolk cop David Mascarella.
By witness accounts augmented by incidental security videos, Mascarella seemed to be driving distractedly and erratically on Middle County Road for 1½ miles before plowing his 4,500-pound Ram truck at full speed into the rear of a 2,000-pound Mitsubishi hatchback driven by Riordan’s dad, Kevin Cavooris.
At that moment, Riordan and his then 4-year-old brother were strapped side by side in car seats behind their father who was about to make a left turn. Kevin Cavooris later expressed gratitude for the emergency response by uniformed services and civilians. Riordan survived but has lingering, perhaps lifelong, injuries.
But evidently purposeful missteps by certain officers began at the scene. Sgt. Lawrence McQuade and precinct officers who were present failed to ask Mascarella to submit to a breath test — a test that loses relevance as it is delayed. A detective told McQuade to get it done; McQuade instead notified a Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association delegate. That delegate, Officer Joseph Russo, ended up driving Mascarella away from investigators, according to McQuade.
The Suffolk PBA has long had outsized clout in department personnel matters. In this case it appeared to infringe on the public interest by preventing an evenhanded probe of a serious collision. Police on the scene of an accident follow a process meant to detachedly determine if alcohol may have involved. And they aren’t supposed to let one of the drivers out of their sight, away from the scene.
More stalling on the test followed, according to documents and witnesses. Russo drove Mascarella to Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, 15 miles away — the fifth-farthest hospital — where Police Officer Kevin Wustenhoff had later been told to administer a breath-test exam. After first claiming it was done and showed no alcohol level, Wustenhoff retracted that statement, according to official sources.
REFUSED BREATH TEST
Around 8 p.m. — three hours after the crash — Mascarella twice refused to take the breath test. At 10:45 p.m. Mascarella was issued a summons for that refusal. When a driver refuses a breath test, police can arrest that driver and seek a court order for a blood alcohol test. How was that glossed over?
The irregularities don’t end there. The Suffolk County district attorney’s Vehicular Crimes Bureau was not informed that night of the crash — despite serious physical injuries and an unexplored possibility of criminality. By that point, of course, the failure to test for alcohol had effectively blunted any possible DA’s investigation.
This case raises anew the significant issue of the department’s public transparency. An SCPD news release the next day didn’t even identify Mascarella as an off-duty officer. Mascarella and Wustenhoff quietly received suspensions. Wustenhoff’s covered 45 days, while Mascarella remained suspended as of Aug. 17, according to payroll records.
An aide to Commissioner Rodney Harrison said Harrison was legally barred from discussing the results of the department’s internal affairs investigation. Newsday is continuing to sue in court to make police disciplinary records broadly available.
Riordan Cavooris’ father, who was tested at the scene for alcohol, rightly expresses bafflement at the SCPD’s conduct — and that he had to learn key information from reporters. Kevin Cavooris said quite reasonably: “There are things we should know that are being withheld from us... We want to forgive, and we want to live in the moment and not dwell on the past, but it’s impossible to move on until we get the answers that some people have and are not telling us.”
SCPD should have let facts emerge honestly in real time. Harrison, hired as a reformer and well aware of the organizational culture he’s up against, must follow up.
Reform must include chipping away at the unseen hand of the PBA — specifically its murky role of manipulating department management and personnel while supposedly representing labor. Outside the SCPD, which of the county’s elected officials will condemn this arrogance? Will they continue to look away? Will they turn away the PBA’s donations?
Corrupted police culture does real-life damage to everyone involved. The Cavooris case becomes the new Exhibit A.
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