By FRANK ELTMAN and JIM FITZGERALD | AP
MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — As a 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 officers should have confronted the gunman or waited for help, including a hostage negotiating team.
The dead woman's godfather criticized the police handling of the confrontation as unprofessional and others offered insights into the difficulty of making the call to use deadly force.
"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 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 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 back-up.
"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.
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, the John Jay professor, 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."
"As bad an ending as this is for the police, imagine how bad it would have been if they were outside and something terrible was happening inside. That would be a story if the police were paralyzed standing outside while people were being killed inside," O'Donnell said.
He said the tragic circumstances that occurred Friday morning are ultimately the responsibility of the gunman. "He's the one who chose the escalation of violence," O'Donnell said.
Nassau County Police were criticized in 2009 after they waited outside a New Cassel home for several hours while a young woman was being abused, and ultimately killed, by her ex-boyfriend. The county later reached a $7.7 million settlement in a federal civil rights lawsuit with the woman's family.
The news that Rebello died from a police bullet only served to compound the tragedy, said Carol Conklin-Spillane, principal of Sleepy Hollow High School, where Rebello and her twin sister graduated in 2010.
"My heart goes out to everyone. You have to empathize with the police officer. He's dealing with the consequences of a split-second decision," Conkin-Spillane said.
Henrique Santos of Eastchester, Rebello's godfather, said outside the Rebello family home in Tarrytown and handed out a statement from the family.
"We are heartbroken and overwhelmingly devastated by the loss of our beautiful daughter, Andrea," the statement said. "We are grateful for all of the kindness and sympathy shown to our family. In our grief, we ask for privacy as we try to make sense of all that has happened."
Santos spoke briefly.
"I think the police is not very professional," he said of the accidental shooting. "If he's professional, he should have tried negotiation."
Speaking about the surviving twin Jessica, he said, "She's sleeping too much. We had to try to give her some food. When she wakes up, she says 'Oh my god, what did I do wrong?'"
The officer who fired the shots is an eight-year NYPD veteran and has been with Nassau County police for 12 years. He is now out on sick leave. Andrea Rebello's funeral is Wednesday.
Associated Press Jim Fitzgerald reported from Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.