The police officer who accidentally killed a Long Island college student along with an armed intruder faced the most harrowing decision of a law enforcement career: choosing the split-second moment when the risk is so high that you must act to save a life, says an expert in the field.
“The big question is, how do you know, when someone’s pointing a gun at you, whether you should keep talking to them or shoot?” said Michele Galietta, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who helps train police officers. “That’s what makes the job of an officer amazingly difficult.”
She spoke Sunday when Hofstra University students honored 21-year-old Andrea Rebello by wearing white ribbons at their graduation ceremony.
Rebello was killed two days earlier when a masked man walked through the unlocked door of her off-campus home and demanded money. A police officer aiming at the would-be robber opened fire, hitting the Hofstra junior as well as the ex-convict holding her hostage.
Rebello’s life ended in split seconds that forced the veteran police officer to make a fatal decision, but the questions surrounding the student’s death are just beginning, along with an internal investigation by the Nassau County Police Department.
The bare facts are simple. Rebello and the intruder, Dalton Smith, died early Friday when the officer fired eight shots, hitting him seven times, with the eighth bullet striking Rebello once in the head, according to county homicide squad Lt. John Azzata.
With a gun pointed at her, Smith “kept saying, ‘I’m going to kill her,’ and then he pointed the gun at the police officer,” Azzata stated.
The would-be robber then made a motion indicating he was about to fire. The officer acted quickly, saying later that he believed his and Rebello’s lives were in danger.
No doubt, he was acting to try to save lives — his own and that of the young woman, Galietta said. But the fallout was tragic.
“What we’re asking the cop to anticipate is ‘What is going on in the suspect’s mind at the moment?’” she says. “We’re always trying to de-escalate, to contain a situation, but the issue of safety comes first, and that’s the evaluation the officer has to make.”
The officer who fired the shots is now out on sick leave.