In a grim rite, officers from across the New York City Police Department stood and saluted Tuesday night outside Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in a cold drizzle as the remains of a detective, believed to have been caught in the crosshairs of fellow law enforcement, were driven past in an ambulance.
Detective Brian Simonsen, 42, was killed earlier in the evening while responding to a report of an armed robbery at a T-Mobile store in Queens, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said at a news conference from the hospital Tuesday.
“This appears to be an absolute tragic case of friendly fire,” said O’Neill, who added that the assessment is subject to change pending an investigation.
Around 6 p.m. a caller told 911 that store employees had been forced at gunpoint to the back of the store. Simonsen and his partner, who were in the area working another case, responded.
They entered the store and shot at the suspect, who was “pointing at them what appeared to be a handgun,” O’Neill said, later adding that “an imitation firearm” had been recovered at the scene. The officers retreated from the store and “that was when Simonsen was shot.”
At the time, “multiple officers” were firing “multiple rounds,” O’Neill said.
A sergeant also was shot once in the leg. He was transported to the hospital by a good Samaritan, O’Neill said, and is listed in stable condition.
“His bravery was so clear, but his pain to have lost his colleague was clear as well,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the news conference.
Simonsen, a 19-year veteran on the force, was not supposed to have been at work Tuesday, said Detectives’ Endowment Association President Michael Palladino.
Simonsen, who served in the 102nd Precinct in Queens, was elected squad delegate to the labor union. Palladino said because the delegates’ meeting took place Tuesday morning, Simonsen “was actually excused from duty … (but) he felt compelled to go to the delegates’ meeting, ignore the excusal and go to work.”
“He was the kind of fellow who led by example,” Palladino said.
In 2010, a New York state task force concluded that fatal friendly fire incidents among police, also known as “blue-on-blue” shootings, “are rare.”
“Since 1981, some 26 police officers across the United States have been shot and killed by fellow police officers who have mistaken them for dangerous criminals,” the report said.
On Tuesday, O’Neill sought to emphasize who was to blame for Simonsen’s death. “Make no mistake, friendly fire aside, it is because of the actions of the suspect that Detective Simonsen is dead,” he said.
The 27-year-old suspect, whom O’Neill said has a criminal background, was in stable condition after being shot multiple times and hospitalized.