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Opinion

Good guys, bad guys and confusion

Despite best intentions, people with guns at shooting scenes can wind up dead.

Emantic Bradford Sr., left, discusses forensic exam results

Emantic Bradford Sr., left, discusses forensic exam results on the Thanksgiving shooting death of his son Emantic Bradford Jr. Photo Credit: AP / Jay Reeves

When police officers converge on a scene that’s being terrorized by an active shooter and find a nonuniformed person with a drawn gun, the cops might shoot that armed person to death even if he’s a good guy.

That’s apparently what happened at a shopping mall in Hoover, Alabama, on Thanksgiving, when officers responding to shots fired found Emantic Bradford Jr. holding a handgun.

Bradford, 21, was shot in the back three times by police. The Hoover Police Department originally said Bradford was the shooter terrorizing the mall and called the officer who killed him a “hero.” But Erron Martez Dequan Brown, 20, was arrested last week and charged with shooting an 18-year-old who was injured at the mall.

Bradford, it turns out, was a licensed gun owner trying to help. Local police and state investigators refuse to release officer video and other evidence. And the fact that Bradford was a young black man has injected race into the issue, fairly or not.

Of course, sometimes a good guy with a gun helps. In April 2009, a 12-step meeting I had attended years before in Columbia, South Carolina, was interrupted by an armed robber demanding money. One of the attendees had a legal handgun and, heroically, killed the robber.

There is no single truth about the good guy with a gun. But it’s clear that no matter how well-trained the armed Samaritan on the scene is, his or her presence can add confusion for police who respond.

It was that confusion that got Nassau County Police Officer Geoffrey Breitkopf killed in Massapequa Park on March 12, 2011.

On that day, Anthony DiGeronimo was seen walking on Front Street, wearing a white mask and carrying two knives, behaving erratically. Residents called 911, and a call went out for officers to respond that also was heard by off-duty and retired officers.

When Breitkopf, a member of Nassau’s elite special operations unit, arrived on scene in plain clothes and carrying a rifle, DiGeronimo had already been killed after lurching toward officers with his knives. But Breitkopf was shot to death by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Officer Glen Gentile, who heard the call at the Massapequa train station and responded. Once on the scene, Gentile heard John Cafarella, a retired NYPD sergeant who also had responded and tried to organize the response, yell, “Gun!,” upon seeing Breitkopf. When Gentile struggled with Breitkopf, then killed him, dispatchers had put out a call to slow the response because DiGeronimo was dead.

Knowing this, I’d guess that police are terrified of even legally armed good Samaritans, but Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder disagrees.

“When I look at protecting the 1.3 million people of Nassau County, I can’t protect them all with a bodyguard,” he said. “In the chaos of an active shooter on the loose, an armed Good Samaritan can help a lot.”

But Ryder acknowledges he feels that way because in Nassau, 90 percent of the people licensed to carry in public are current or former cops, which is not the case everywhere. And while his department trains to react to such scenes, human error is possible.

Ryder says Nassau police are working with the recently approved armed guards in the Massapequa schools. In Northport-East Northport, the district just voted against armed guards. Adding guns to a scene in the hope of cutting down on shootings is a tough call.

And anyone who has a gun drawn and isn’t wearing a uniform when police arrive at an active shooting scene, whether they are teachers or off-duty cops or just citizens, is in serious danger, from the cops responding and the criminal rampaging. And they might endanger others, too.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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