Leslie Koren, Staff Writer January 22, 2001, Monday Copyright 2001 Bergen Record Corp. The Record (Bergen County, NJ) January 22, 2001, Monday; All Editions
(BERGEN COUNTY, N.J.) -- Fort Lee Police Officer Steve Pumilia can still see the barrel of the high-powered handgun pointed straight at him. It was 20 years ago, but he remembers it all, the sounds, the smells, the faces of the strangers he and his partner came across in the dark motel parking lot.
"There was maybe 8 ounces of cocaine in the car. It wasn't a major drug bust or a lot of money," Pumilia said. "They just didn't like the police."
The same thing can happen during a motor vehicle stop, a burglary, or a patrol down a dark street. No one can predict when.
Recently, two Orange police officers on a stakeout were shot by a man they stopped to question. The officers, Detective David Lemongello and Officer Kenneth McGuire, remained in fair condition this weekend.
Word of the shootings spread, reminding officers throughout North Jersey and elsewhere that the next "officer down" could be one of 1 them.
"Every day I come to work, believe me, it crosses my mind that today might be the day I don't come home," said Leonia rookie Patrolman Robert Kennedy.
He repeated a mantra he learned at the Bergen County Police Academy: "Don't become a training film."
Again and again, teachers ran the films, which included actual footage of cops being killed. The point hit home.
An officer can train for such a situation, wear a bulletproof vest, and call for cover, but in the end he or she has no more than a split second to react.
For Pumilia, the fateful moment came in 1981, in the same parking lot where fellow Officer William Birch was shot and killed years earlier while responding to a robbery.
Pumilia and his partner, William Cullen, noticed the car, its windows fogged, a few spots from the lobby of the Riviera Motel on Route4. They approached, got a bad feeling, and retreated to call for backup.
Then they approached again.
There were four people in the car, and Pumilia saw one of the men in the back seat reach for his waistband. In the man's hand, Pumilia said, was a MAC 11 machine pistol capable of shooting 30 rounds in less than eight-tenths of a second.
The gun got caught in the man's sport coat. Seizing the opportunity, the officers grabbed the suspects and threw them to the ground.
Somehow the driver got free.
Pumilia saw him scramble into the car and reach under the seat.
Then he saw, for the first time, the.357-caliber Magnum that would haunt him 20 years later.
He would have shot at the gunman, who pointed the weapon straight at him, but his partner was standing directly behind him, Pumilia said.
So he kept his attention on the driver.
"I was looking at his eyes and he was looking at mine, and I kept screaming at him to drop the gun," said Pumilia, the son of a cop. "It probably only lasted a minute or two. It seems like an hour. You see it in slow motion."
Pumilia still wonders what would have happened if the driver kept coming forward. The man dropped the gun instead.
"You have that dream every now and then," he said. "You're put back in the same situation, and it ends differently each time. Most of the time, you feel like you have a sponge trigger and can't 1 pull it."
In 1998, the last year for which numbers are available, 61 police officers nationwide were killed by an intentional gunshot, according to the FBI. In the same year 18,198 officers were wounded by an assault.
Officers are clearly aware of the danger, but they say they cannot let it prey too much on their thoughts.
"I know it's something that I don't dwell upon," said Paterson Police Chief Lawrence Spagnola, who worked the streets for several years while moving through the ranks. "Situations change instantly and, above all, you have to just be aware of your surroundings and aware of certain situations that might exist.
"You've just got to put a little faith in your job and go forward."
"You can't let your guard down, because your main objective is to go home," said West Paterson Police Officer Eileen Tiernan, an eight-year veteran. "You're trying to take somebody's freedom away. Even if it's for a minor thing, a parking warrant, people just have a problem with it."
But if you build a fortress around yourself, you risk losing your humanity and your ability to do your job, Tiernan said.
"When I first started, I thought I shouldn't deal with it emotionally," Tiernan said. "I should be able to deal with it. But now there are times, when somebody dies or there's a bad accident, it does affect me and I let it. It makes me a better human being."
In the back of every officer's mind is the flip side: Shoot the suspect and say goodbye to the life you knew. Expect inquiries and Monday-morning quarterbacking, and possibly a trial.
"It's kind of hard not to think about it, given the media attention any shooting gets and given the limitations the law puts on you," said River Edge Police Chief Ron Starace.
In more than 20 years as a cop, Palisades Park Lt. Anthony Servis has heard about a lot of shootings, both of officers and suspects.
"There's remorse for the person being shot sometimes, and sometimes there's not," Servis said. "You feel bad for the officer who shot, because you know that their life is going to be changed forever. And there's probably a sense of relief that it's him and not you."
Each day, Spagnola's wife prays for the safety of her husband's officers. In churches, temples, and homes throughout the region, the lips of mothers and brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends, and children speak similar prayers as their loved ones, preparing for a day on the job, don their blues and gun belts.
Most days, those prayers are answered.
Still, the threat remains.
"You try not to dwell on it, because if you dwell on it, you could get yourself hurt," said North Bergen police Lt. Joseph Bode. "But every officer knows when he puts a badge on, he could face a life-and-death situation.