The only eyewitness to the brazen, early-morning shooting death of an unarmed 22- year-old National Guardsman on a crowded New York City highway claims he never had a chance to comply with officer’s brief demands to show his hands during what was initially thought to be a routine traffic stop and instead was the victim of “pure, road rage.”
Noel Polanco, who family members insist one day himself hoped to be a member of the NYPD, died of a single gunshot wound to the abdomen last Thursday during the brief but deadly encounter on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.
Police have identified the officer who fired the fatal gunshot as 39-year-old Hassan Hamdy, a 14-year veteran of the department whose work history has been marred by at least two lawsuits naming his as a defendant against police abuse charges that resulted in the department paying out more than $500,000 in settlement pay outs.
“Noel didn’t have a chance to put his hands up,” said Diane DeFerrari, who was traveling in the front seat alongside Polanco during the incident. “They screamed, ‘put your hands up,’ and shot at the same time. His hands never left the steering wheel. It was simultaneous…there was a pop and Noel gasped,” the distraught mother of three added.
The pair, along with off-duty NYPD officer Vanessa Rodriguez, who was asleep in the back of the vehicle, was traveling along the Parkway around 5 a.m. when what seemed like a fleet of unmarked vans testily pulled their Honda 2012 over and rushed the car “like an army.”
As uniformed members from the department’s Emergency Service Unit scampered around the vehicle, DeFerrari told authorities screams and taunts aimed at Polanco about how he had cut off their vehicle were clearly audible.
“He was a danger to other motorists on the road,” said Philip Karasyk, who identified himself as Hamdy’s attorney and insists Polanco was only pulled over after being observed weaving in and out traffic, including a pair of large-sized police vans driven by officers on their way to serve a high-risk warrant in nearby Brooklyn.
“A reasonable person doesn’t refuse to pull over in response to a police vehicle flashing lights and sirens,” Karasyk added. “They actually had to box him in and pull him over.”
With the Rev. Al Sharpton by her side, on Saturday Cecilia Reyes assured supporters during a high-energy rally that her son’s death will not be in vain. “I’m not going to give up until I get justice,” she said. “I want justice. I want no cover-up; I want answers.”
Raising the suspensions and ire of some all the more is Hamdy’s history of somewhat over-aggressive methods of operation. Assigned to the department’s Tactical Apprehension Team, where he is entrusted with tracking some of NYC’s most violent drug and gun suspects, in both 2001 and 2008 the city was forced to settle federal civil-rights lawsuits claiming abuse and naming Hamdy as a central suspect.
In one instance, Hamdy and others were charged with breaking down the door of a man’s home without a warrant and physically assaulting him. On the morning of the Polanco slaying, again with Hamdy as one of the leaders, team members had already executed warrants on two apartments where they collared at least five drug suspects.
No weapons or other contraband was found in Polanco’s vehicle, only a small power drill on the floor of the driver’s side. Nonetheless, both DeFerrari and Rodriguez insist they were ordered out of the vehicle and made to stand with their hands sprawled across the car. DeFerrari maintains that one cop even taunted her: “Your friend just shot himself.”
“I didn’t dispute what I saw because I was afraid,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me look at him.”
“What’s so bad about a drill?” Reyes asked the Daily News. “What could he have done with a drill, honestly?” Added Sharpton: This is about what is right and what is fair. For unarmed innocent people to be killed is wrong, and it has got to stop.”
Throughout much the weekend, Reyes tried to reconcile herself with the paradoxical way in which her son died and how he most hoped to live the rest of his life.
“That was his dream,” she said of her son’s decision to join the military six-months ago. “All he wanted to do was go to the military, continue his career in the military and then continue his career as an officer.”
Polanco’s young sister, Amanda Reyes, took the news of her oldest brother’s demise equally hard. Reyes described her brother as “being my rock” since her father committed suicide three months ago.
“He was my oldest brother… he always had time to sit with me and talk it through,” she said. “I lost everything now, my father and now my brother.”
Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, has since issued a statement assuring that his office and the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau will thoroughly investigate the case. Reports indicate that Hamdy also once served in the military, rising to the rank of sergeant during his four-years stationed at the Camp Lejeune base in North Carolina.
Draped in a black T-shirt bearing a likeness to her son, Reyes further jazzed up the emotionally-charged crowd. “We want to believe in the law,” she said. “We don’t want to have to be afraid of the law.”
The Polanco family is also now consulting with an attorney and may soon move to formally sue the city and the department.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.