Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Because they're cops

One police officer shot and killed another on the front lawn of a suburban home in Massapequa Park last weekend.

The New York Times identified the officer who fired the bullet as Glenn Gentile of the Metropolitan Transit Authority police force. The officer killed was Nassau County Police Officer Geoffrey J. Breitkopf.

Gentile and Breitkopf were among a clutch of officers who responded to a 911 call of a man with a knife walking the streets of the neighborhood.

The first officers who arrived on the scene chased a suspect into a home, where the suspect first barricaded himself inside a room and then menaced officers, who shot him dead, police said.

Gentile responded to the scene, and was outside the home with other officers. Breitkopf, who was in plainclothes, arrived later, with his partner. According to the Nassau police union, the Times reports, Breitkopf removed a police-issued assault rifle from the trunk of his car. Breitkopf "exchanged pleasantries" with other officers across the street from the home, and then walked over to the house. He wore his badge around his neck and the rifle slung over his shoulder with the barrel facing down.

According to the Nassau police union, Gentile shot Breitkopf on the lawn. The bullet entered the left side of Breitkopf's chest and exited the right side, stopping in his right arm. It is not clear whether Breitkopf wore a protective vest.

The police union's primary objective in any investigation of its officers is to assert their non-culpability in any questionable act. When the NYPD mistakenly guns down unarmed men, or even their own officers, the Patrolman's Benevolent Association nearly always asserts that the shooters were following procedure. Moreover, they frequently claim that bringing charges against police officers for such accidental shootings will deter police officers from following procedure.

But when it comes to the killing of a NCPD officer by an MTA transit cop, one association is pitted against another. The Nassau county policy union account exonerates the deceased of any wrongdoing. The MTA in turn said it was cooperating fully with the investigation into the "tragic accidental death." The Nassau County police commissioner told the Times that charges won't likely be filed.

The families of police officers steel themselves for the worst. In an unrelated incident that same weekend, a domestic dispute led to a scuffle and a shove sent New York City Police Officer Alain Schaberger, of Brooklyn's 84th Precinct, nine feet down a flight of steps where he broke his neck and died. It was an accident, say relatives of the suspect who pushed Schaberger.

Accidents in the line of duty are tragic, and will always happen. But the nature of Gentile's accidental shooting of Breitkopf - and according to the Daily News it appears to be an inexplicable accident of one veteran cop shooting another - brings to the fore the double-standard we have for police officers' accidental use lethal force.

Police officers almost never face a criminal trial for accidental shootings. A police officer in Framingham, Massachusetts, stumbled during a raid and shot and killed 68-year-old grandfather Eurie Stamps last Wednesday. The district attorney's office said the act did not "rise to the level of criminal conduct, and the shooting death of Eurie Stamps was an accident."

If Gentile had been a civilian, who shot and killed a cop on a Massapequa lawn, he'd face at minimum first-degree manslaughter charges. Civilians aren't allowed to make lethal mistakes. Police officers are.

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