February 27, 2008

Hundreds mourn Queens cop shot 20 years ago

BY ADAM PINCUS Special to Newsday

Police officers at the 1 a.m. ceremony in Jamaica Tuesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of rookie Edward Byrne (Photo by Adam Pincus / February 26, 2008)    
Police officers at the 1 a.m. ceremony in Jamaica Tuesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of rookie Edward Byrne. (Photo by Adam Pincus / February 26, 2008)  

Hundreds of police officers filled a Jamaica intersection for a solemn 1 a.m. vigil Tuesday morning where 22-year-old rookie Edward Byrne was shot to death in a contract killing ordered by a drug dealer 20 years ago.

Standing in front of a wreath at the corner of 107th Avenue and Inwood Street in Jamaica, retired Capt. Ernie Naspretto said a forceful police response to the murder ultimately pushed down crime in the city.

"We are safer now than at any time in the last four decades. And it is because of the NYPD," said Naspretto, who was a sergeant in the 103rd Precinct in 1988, where Byrne was assigned.

The annual event was held hours after the close of the first day of the trial of three detectives charged with fatally shooting Sean Bell just half a mile away.

Critics of the police department have said the Bell shooting was the result of overaggressive police tactics. The president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, told the quiet crowd that the police saved the city from the crack epidemic that had gripped New York.

"Wear that patch proudly. Apologize to no one," he said.

Although the trial was on the minds of many of the officers, cops said the two killings were not related. Officer Derek Braithwaite, a 17-year veteran was one of scores of officers from the 103rd Precinct attending the ceremony.

"I don't think they are comparable," he said.

Naspretto, speaking before the ceremony, said each incident only showed the unpredictability of the job. "You can be lying dead in the street or be before a judge," he said.

The murder of Officer Byrne was committed in a city far more dangerous than the one today. In 1988 there were 1,896 murders citywide. Last year there were fewer than 500.

Few residents were outside during the ceremony in the neighborhood of two- and three-story homes. Wendell, a 35-year-old resident who declined to give his last name, said he remembered little of the Byrne shooting.

"Everything was quarantined off," he said. Although he said the neighborhood was never unsafe, he believed it had improved.

"It seems like it has gotten better. There is more police presence," he said.

Byrne was sitting in his cruiser outside the home of a Guyanese immigrant who had become a witness in a case against neighborhood drug dealer Howard [Pappy] Mason.

Two men approached his car at about 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1988, knocked on the window, and then opened fire, hitting him five times in the head. Six days later four suspects were arrested.

Mason was later convicted of ordering the murder from jail. Todd Scott and David McClary were convicted of shooting Byrne. Scott Cobb was sent to prison for driving the getaway car and Philip Copeland for assuring the execution was carried out.

The four will be eligible for parole in five years, Naspretto said.