City won't punish 2 in bystander's death

Cops fired at car, but bullet hit David Scaringe on New Year's Eve 2003

BRENDAN LYONS Staff Writer
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Friday, January 21, 2005

ALBANY - Two Albany police officers involved in the fatal shooting of a bystander on New Year's Eve 2003 received no punishment under a deal they struck privately with the city several months ago, the Times Union has learned. Stephen R. Coffey, an attorney for officers William Bonanni and Joseph Gerace, on Thursday confirmed the settlement, which he said required the officers to undergo in-service training and job counseling. He added that both officers were cleared of wrongdoing and face no loss of pay or time as a result of the shooting incident.


Police Chief James E. Turley declined comment, citing privacy laws governing disciplinary issues. It's not clear when the officers might return to duty. They remain on paid leave for "job-related illness," according to the city.


"We're working with the city in regards to getting them back to full duty and we're doing things to facilitate that at this time," said Chris Mesley, president of the Albany Police Officers Union.


They were placed on leave immediately following the Dec. 31, 2003, shooting of David Scaringe, a young engineer who was struck by a stray bullet as the officers opened fire on the car of a drunken driver.


Bonanni fired one shot, while Gerace fired nine shots at the vehicle, which both officers have claimed came close to running them over. A ballistics test determined an errant bullet fired by Gerace pierced Scaringe's lung, killing him.


"Pending an independent medical evaluation, there's no reason why they can't come back on (duty)," Coffey said. "Legally and morally there's no reason why they can't come back on at this point. ... When they said they didn't do anything wrong, that is not to say that they have not been traumatized by what happened here." A grand jury cleared Bonanni and Gerace of criminal wrongdoing last spring. No one, including the fleeing driver, was held criminally responsible for Scaringe's death.


On Jan. 5, the city announced it had settled a lawsuit with Scaringe's family for $1.3 million. The city's press release on the settlement also said: "Because of privacy laws (the officers') discipline cannot be discussed."


In response, Bonanni wrote a letter dated Jan. 14 that was posted on internal department bulletin boards. He criticized the city's characterization of his status and department administrators for "creating a public backlash against the officers involved in the call."


"The actions I took were lawful and in the scope of my duties," Bonanni wrote. "I had to make a split-second decision because I was dealing with gunfire and a maniac driving a car in my path."


Bonanni also criticized department officials for releasing "relevant evidence of the incident to the media." He apparently was referring to a Jan. 6, 2004, Times Union story in which Chief Robert Wolfgang confirmed that supervisors had tried to terminate the car chase moments before the shots rang out.


Department officials said the radio channels were jammed and at least two supervisors were unable to get on the air to stop the pursuit, which was wending through the city's bustling Center Square neighborhood as people celebrating New Year's Eve poured into downtown.


"I followed proper procedures regarding their pursuit policy and I was backing up a fellow officer," Bonanni said. "The administration created a significant public and officer safety issue by having improper staffing in the dispatch room. Having one dispatcher on police radio (channel) is dangerous on any given day of the year and is against procedures."


Detective James Miller, a Department of Public Safety spokesman, declined to respond to Bonanni's allegations about understaffing in the dispatcher's office.


"The department is moving forward," Miller said. "It was a tragedy that we don't want to revisit. Policies have been changed, including all aspects of communication."


Several witnesses gave statements indicating they felt the officers acted appropriately. But other witnesses said they felt the officers, especially Gerace, were reckless and that Gerace fired shots at the car as it sped away - not as it came toward him.


Donald W. Boyajian, the attorney for the Scaringe family, said Gerace shared more of the responsibility for Scaringe's death because he partially blocked the intersection with his cruiser, pointed his gun at Daniel Reed's windshield and "initiated the confrontation" in the crowded neighborhood.


Still, "I didn't know that there was any deal cut," Boyajian said, adding: "What the city does with them at this point is the city's business. The Scaringe family wants to move on."


Bonanni closed his letter, which was addressed to his fellow officers on the 340-member force, by criticizing the city's press release announcing the settlement with Scaringe's family.


"I was backing up an officer in harm's way," he said. "For the city to skillfully make it appear there was wrongdoing on my part and I was disciplined is unacceptable behavior on their part."


The settlement with Scaringe's family is the largest in the city's history, more than double the $500,000 paid to the relatives of a mentally ill man shot and killed by police officers in 1984.


The killing of Scaringe, 24, triggered fundamental changes to the department's policies governing police pursuits and use of deadly force.


The changes included in-service training for officers, an improved radio transmission system that gives police supervisors control of the airwaves and a rule prohibiting officers from firing at a moving vehicle to disable it. In addition, officers must break off any chase that might unduly endanger the public.


Reed, who started the pursuit that led to Scaringe's death, was arrested later that night after police found his bullet-riddled car abandoned in a downtown parking lot. He was sentenced to six months in Albany County jail as part of a plea bargain.








Brendan Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com.