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Questions linger in shooting of NY college student
Monday - 5/20/2013, 11:18pm EDT
MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) -- As a grieving family prepared for the funeral of a Hofstra University junior killed by a police officer's bullet during a standoff with an armed intruder, some on Monday questioned whether police should have waited for help, including a hostage negotiating team.
"I think the police is not very professional," the dead woman's godfather said outside the family home in Westchester County, north of New York City. "If he's professional, he should have tried negotiation," Henrique Santos said.
Santos earlier told the Journal-News: "He should have hit the guy with the first shot, not eight."
A key question is whether the officers responding to the house near the Hofstra campus at 2:30 a.m. Friday were aware the intruder was holding hostages. Police officials described the initial report as simply a robbery in progress.
One of the two officers who entered the home found the intruder holding 21-year-old Andrea Rebello in a headlock and "kept saying 'I'm going to kill her,' and then he pointed the gun at the police officer," said Nassau County homicide squad Lt. John Azzata. That's when the officer, who has not been identified, fired eight times, fatally striking 30-year-old Dalton Smith with seven shots and Rebello with one shot to the head.
Smith, who had a 9 mm pistol, never fired a shot, police said.
Edward Mamet, who spent 40 years as a New York City police officer and appears as an expert witness on police procedure, said if the responding officers knew hostages were inside the house, they should have taken a cautious approach and waited for backup.
"Unless it's clearly indicated that the lives of hostages and any bystanders are in jeopardy," Mamet said. "If that's the case, then everything goes out the window."
Police Commissioner Thomas Dale said the criminal investigation is ongoing and an internal police department investigation will follow. A spokesman for the district attorney's office said Monday it also was monitoring the police investigation.
James Carver, president of the Nassau County Patrolman's Benevolent Association, which represents the officer, did not return telephone calls for comment. He scheduled a Tuesday news conference to discuss the case.
One woman who was in the house when the intruder broke in was permitted to leave the house to get money at a nearby ATM; she called 911 and never returned to the house. It was not immediately clear if that woman told a 911 operator the intruder was holding several people at gunpoint inside the house, or whether that information was relayed to responding officers.
"There's a balancing act of trying to take decisive action, but wise action," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and professor of law and police studies at John Jay College. "These situations are so unique and are differentiated by what the cops knew at the time."
A Nassau County spokesman on Monday cited state law in declining to release 911 tapes of the incident. Some news organizations have posted audio of police scanner chatter of the incident from the Internet, but its accuracy could not be verified. At certain points in the recordings, officers can be heard referring to hostages, but the chronology of events is not clear.
Azzata has said that when the first two officers approached the front door of the two-story home, a woman later identified as Jessica Rebello came screaming out of the house yelling "he's got a gun." Azzata said at that moment, officers believed Smith was in the home alone. It was only once inside the house that an officer learned two others besides the gunman were inside.
A young man was hiding behind a couch when Smith came down the stairs with Rebello in a headlock. As he headed for the back door while clutching the woman, the officer confronted him and shots were fired.
Mamet cautioned that in such circumstances, information broadcast on police radios may not always get to the officers in a timely fashion. Factors that could disrupt communication include whether sirens were blaring -- drowning out the radio -- or other conversations were taking place between the officers in a patrol car.
"It's going to be so important to review all the messages and the recordings of their responses and put it all together," Mamet said.
O'Donnell cautioned that even with that information "radio transmissions can be wildly inaccurate, but it's the only tool you have."
He also noted that "inaction can also have a cost."