A police officer shot and killed a driver who was pulled over on a busy highway near LaGuardia Airport early Thursday because the cop mistakenly believed he had a gun, law enforcement sources tell NBC 4 New York.
Noel Polanco, 22, was on his way home to Corona from his job at the Ice Lounge in Astoria, and left at about 5 a.m., surveillance video shows. He'd offered a ride to a colleague, bartender Diana Deferrari, and another woman, who was an off-duty police officer, according to sources. All three lived in the same part of Queens.
As they headed home on the Grand Central Parkway, Polanco was pulled over after cutting off what turned out to be an unmarked police van.
When Polanco stopped the car, a detective approached the vehicle and asked him to show his hands, according to police.
Police said Polanco reached under his seat and appeared to grab for a yellow electric power drill with a black handle.
That's when the detective, a 12-year veteran assigned to ESU, fired a single shot through the passenger-side window and hit Polanco in the stomach. He was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Sources said the detective may have thought Polanco was reaching for a gun. But Deferrari, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, said his hands were on the steering wheel "at all times" and that the officers were angry when they pulled him over.
"This was an act of road rage by the police because my friend cut him off, cut off the police," she told reporters Thursday. "The police proceeded to chase us, sticking their middle finger at us and screaming obscenities at the car."
No gun was recovered from the car.
The off-duty police officer in the car, who was in the backseat, told investigators she was asleep when the shooting happened.
Polanco served in the U.S. Army for four years, enlisting in April 2008. He was assigned to the 1156th Engineer Company headquartered in Kingston, N.Y.
"He actually joined the Army because he wanted to be a cop," said Noel De La Rosa, a friend of Polanco. "He said, 'Why don't I do this for a couple of years, and then I'll join the force.'"
Another friend, Tito Cordero, said Polanco returned from a tour awhile back and in addition to bartending, had been working at a Honda dealership detailing cars.
"He worked hard, two, three jobs," said Cordero. "He was a quiet, good kid. There's no aggressiveness in this kid."
Deferrari said she was disillusioned after the shooting of her friend and co-worker.
"I don't know what to think," she said. "I always gave cops the benefit of the doubt. Now I feel nothing but fear."