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The Lieutenant’s Death That Will Not Die

October 12, 2009

The widow of an Emergency Service lieutenant who killed himself a year ago is blaming the tragedy on Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, his spokesman Paul Browne, and other unnamed top brass.

Lieutenant Michael Pigott’s widow has turned her grief into a damning portrait of cowardly police higher-ups, turning their backs on an officer trying to protect his men.

No monetary damages have been specified in Susan Pigott’s notice of claim, filed last week in Brooklyn State Supreme Court and first reported by the Post’s Alex Ginsberg.

“Susan Pigott’s motivation in bringing this lawsuit,” said her attorney Rodney Lapidus, “is that it should never happen again to another police officer and his family.”

On Sept. 24, 2008, Lieu. Pigott, a 21-year veteran and head of an elite Emergency Service Unit team, ordered Sergeant Nick Marchesona to fire a Taser gun at an emotionally disturbed Brooklyn man, Iman Morales. Perched naked, on a second-floor ledge of his Brooklyn building, Morales had been brandishing an eight-foot long fluorescent light bulb at two cops trying to rescue him.

Fearing Morales would strike the officers, PIgott ordered him Tasered — which is considered non-lethal force — before ensuring that equipment was in place on the sidewalk below to break his fall. Without that cushion, Morales fell head-first to the pavement when Tasered, and died.

Susan Pigott’s notice of claim states that, the following week, Kelly and Brown “made defamatory statements to the public and the press that Michael Pigott made a ‘mistake,’” and that “The order to employ the Taser … appears to have violated guidelines.”

She further alleges that the department told the media and Pigott that his actions were ‘improper,” that his “employment as an NYPD officer was in jeopardy, and that he might be criminally prosecuted.”

Pigott was transferred to a desk job at the Motor Pool, away from his colleagues and support system.

Lapidus added that the department immediately appointed a new unit head and told Pigott he would be barred from “returning to a job he loved.”

Lapidus added that city lawyers — apparently following Kelly’s hard-line position — advised Pigott that “they might not defend or indemnify him in a civil suit,” should the Morales family sue him personally. After his death, they sued his estate.

According to the lawsuit, the actions of Kelly and Browne — as well as other unnamed top brass, one of whom resembles Pigott’s supervisor, Asst. Chief Charles Kammerdener of the Special Operations Division — caused Pigott “to become humiliated, distraught, depressed, fearful of losing his employment as an NYPD officer, fearful of being arrested, criminally prosecuted and incarcerated; and caused him to commit suicide.”

While not part of the lawsuit, it appeared that Kelly was influenced by dramatic video footage that captured Morales plunging to his death, which played repeatedly on the local news and was widely seen on the internet. The video made the tragedy a public relations nightmare for the NYPD. It undoubtedly added to Pigott’s anguish.

Regardless of the video, Pigott’s widow believes the NYPD unfairly condemned her husband.

“He [Pigott] had a split second to react,” said Lapidus, “to determine whether his men might be injured. The police commissioner, Kelly, was on TV, making statements to news media all the time about how he ‘screwed up.’

“Rather than supporting their own officer, they went on TV, radio and in the newspapers saying he [Pigott] was wrong, that he never should have done that. They didn’t say he was a police officer with more than 20 years experience who had given meritorious service, who had always conducted himself in an exemplary fashion and lived for his job at ESU. Instead, they threw him under the bus. They went on the air waves to say he killed someone — all this to keep peace in the community.”

Police sources said at the time that the Pigott family held Kelly personally responsible for the lieutenant’s death and requested he not attend Pigott’s funeral. According to Lapidus, Pigott’s father withdrew that request, saying Kelly would be welcome. However neither Kelly nor any ranking police official attended.

Kelly and his wife Veronica did attend Pigott’s wake.

This is not the first time that Kelly has publicly blamed an officer for a civilian death, but this is the first time that his criticisms have been blamed for an officer’s suicide.

In Jan., 2004, following the police shooting of Timothy Stansbury, an unarmed black teenager, on the rooftop of his Brooklyn apartment building, Kelly blamed the officer, Richard Neri, for failing to follow police guidelines.

While on patrol, Neri had his gun drawn, as police regulations permit. Startled that Stansbury suddenly emerged in the darkness, Neri accidentally fired a shot that struck Stansbury in the chest, killing him.

While the city’s media praised Kelly’s public stance, suggesting it helped forestall a riot, no less a police critic than Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, pointed out that Kelly’s statement violated Neri’s right to a fair trial.

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A Brooklyn grand jury declined to indict Neri, concluding that the shooting was accidental. Neri was subsequently elected a police union delegate.

A month after the shooting, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association gave Kelly a vote of no confidence, with president Patrick Lynch calling for his resignation.

In remarks that could apply to Pigott, Lynch said at the time, “Commissioner Kelly gave a message to the 23,000 New York City police officers that said basically this: Take all the risks of doing your job, go up on all those roofs, patrol all those subway platforms, walk the streets day and night, take the risks to yourself, take the risks to your family but then when the worst happens, when there’s a tragedy, you will not have the backing of the New York police commissioner.”

As for Pigott, he publicly took responsibility for issuing his Taser order, absolving Marchesona of Morales’ death.

He also apologized to Morales’ family, a rare step for a cop under investigation.

Eight days after issuing his Taser order, Pigott secretly returned to his former ESU unit at 4 A.M., broke into a fellow officer’s locker, grabbed a gun inside it and fired a bullet into his head. It was his 46th birthday.

Alongside pictures of his three children, he wrote in a hand-printed note on 8 by 11-inch paper. “Dear Sue, Rob, Mikey and Liz, I love you all. I am sorry for the Mess! I was trying to protect my guys that day! I ordered Nick Marchesona to fire the Taser! I can’t bear to lose my family and go to jail.”

Footnote: After Pigott’s suicide, the police department and the city backtracked from their hard-nosed positions. Perhaps realizing he had gone too far, Kelly persuaded the city’s law department to represent Pigott’s estate in any civil action.

THE BRASSLESS BRASS. The NYPD has a new Chef of Detectives. He is Phil Pulaski, a sharp [and competent] piece of work who sounds as though he knows plenty about solving crimes and most everything else at Police Plaza.

Pulaski also has flair, as evidenced by the plump paragraph he filled in Friday’s Daily News, in which he compared detecting to carpentry, with references to hammers, drills and saws.

Now let’s see how much rope Kelly gives him. Will he allow Pulaski to speak to the media at crime scenes, unlike his predecessor, George Brown, who went seven years without being permitted to open his mouth?

Kelly was down on Brown, whom he tried unsuccessfully to force out a few years ago. Just before Brown retired last month, Kelly denied him a raise that would have increased his pension. He also scheduled a promotion ceremony in the Police Plaza auditorium on the day of Brown’s departure. Brown had reserved the space for the traditional farewell party, and was forced to cancel.

Brown is hardly alone. Indeed, Kelly seems so disdainful of his top brass that, a few months back, he publicly reprimanded his former radio partner, Chief of Patrol Robert Giannelli, the odds-on favorite to succeed George Grasso as First Deputy, if and when Grasso becomes a civil court judge. Giannelli’s sin: scheduling a change of precinct desk officers without informing Kelly.

Then, there’s recently retired Chief of Transportation Michael Scagnelli, whose heart is as big as the sun and whose loyalty was not just to the department but to the troops beneath him. Kelly dissed him by breaking up his bureau, then ordering him to remove his prized hunting trophies from his office wall.

Scagnelli dissed Kelly back by forgoing the traditional retirement party flyer with the police commissioner as honorary chairman. Instead Scagnelli put out the word he’d prefer Kelly not attend.

His retirement party last month drew over 600 well-wishers, including former police commissioner Bill Bratton. In his farewell remarks, Scagnelli acknowledged as his mentor former homicide commander Vernon Geberth, perhaps the nation’s foremost murder expert, who is also a member of Kelly’s persona non grata committee.

Despite the bad blood between them, Kelly did show up at the party — for all of 60 seconds. He had his picture taken with Scagnelli, then departed.

YOUR HUMBLE SERVANT STANDS CORRECTED. Referring to the Sept. 21 NYPD Confidential column, a reader writes: “In today’s column you pointed out that Mayor Michael Bloomberg ‘still can’t speak English.’ You described his improper use of ‘he’ and ‘I,’ when he should have said ‘him and me.’ You’re correct. However in the same column, a few paragraphs before this grammar lesson, you wrote: ‘ …and probably Kelly, since no decision, no matter how trivial, occurs in the NYPD without his approval.’ Decisions do not ‘occur,’ they are ‘made.’”

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