Remembering Officer Mike Smith: ‘The Pope Of Coney Island Avenue’

Remembering Officer Mike Smith: ‘The Pope Of Coney Island Avenue’
(Photo submitted by Kim Walker)

Saturday morning, March 11 was Mike Smith’s funeral. He worked in Community Affairs at the 70th Precinct, so the public saw more of him than the average police officer. When Dominic Scotto transferred out of his CA Post, Detective Kim Walker, an old hand at Community Affairs, got a new partner, Mike Smith. But he wasn’t really new.

Besides being an officer for 23 years, Mike had also been union delegate for 10. So he knew everyone. The CA department has two full-time spots, so for the last couple of years, half the time you called the precinct with general questions, schedules for events, or just outright complaints, you got Mike.

When the 70th adopted the NCO (Neighborhood Coordinating Officer) program last year, they wanted to establish relationships with “community representatives” from all the neighborhoods. The leadership of the precinct chose individuals to approach and ask if they were up for serving as reps. These calls fell on Mike.

He reached out to a lot of people at that time and established a lot of relationships. Those of us who accepted the offer would get calls from Mike letting us know of any event in our area that might generate interest. The idea was to tamp down on rumors and to get a general sense of the correct story circulating fast. The idea worked. Even up until the most recent Precinct Community Council meeting, neighborhood leaders thanked the CO for reaching out in this manner. Most times the phone rang with these mini-news reports, it was Mike calling.

At the last PCC meeting, Commanding Officer Palumbo thanked some of the local public servants (my nice word for politicians) for their role in facilitating the PBA Union negotiations with the city. Many officers had been waiting for the negotiations to finish so they could retire understanding where they stood financially. Mike was one of those officers who was waiting. He was ready to go. Just before the meeting, I asked Detective Nuzzi (who is replacing Mike) if Mike seemed young to retire. Nuzzi said that while it was young to fully retire, it was not unusual for cops to do “20 and out.” They were actually going on to start a new life; a safer life with less pressure. At least that is the plan.

Something went wrong with Mike’s plan. I don’t know what. Ultimately it’s none of my business. Mike could come off as a little nervous or shy at times. But he was extremely nice and always had a positive attitude. He was always falling over himself to be helpful. This is not the image people always have of the NYPD. Mike made the NYPD look good. When we searched for a photograph of him we realized that he was always the guy behind the camera.

There were hundreds of officers lined up filling the street for a block. I counted rows of 10 long and 6 deep. There were about 7 or 8 groups like that. It was 20 degrees and they were freezing. They all wore gloves and stared ahead with a discipline we don’t see most days. Later, I asked an officer if they got paid for that time. It was explained that if an officer was on duty, he could go. But anyone else was there voluntarily. It was Saturday morning. Hundreds of officers were there because they wanted to be.

(Photo via NYPD70/twitter)

I took what seemed to be the last free seat in the “friends” section. The Holy Names church is big and it could not keep out the 20-degree weather so jackets remained on. There were multiple priests who spoke alternately and a singer with a guitarist. Windsor Terrace is an old-school Irish neighborhood. The traditional Irish fabric of this community rippled through the service as it does the neighborhood and to a degree, the NYPD.

When the place was packed with rows of standing people, many with uniforms, an honor guard entered. Six officers walked to the front of the church and knelt onto one knee. Then they each stood and tipped their hats toward the stage of the church.

The priest conducting the service either knew Mike or had taken the time to get to know him. They made it personal and did not hide from the elephant in the living room. They did not use the word suicide, but they did not skirt the issue either. They said things like “we know he is at peace now”.

There was something comforting about the sense that police suicide would not be swept under the rug. But that it would also not preclude you being a member of this larger family, the stability of which was especially important at this moment. At the end of the service, they introduced the Commanding Officer, Inspector Palumbo to give the eulogy.

CO James Palumbo is a soft spoken guy. We’ve seen a few COs in the last 15 years. Some of the guys before him were big personalities, sometimes a bit showy, who seemed to enjoy getting up in front a room of people. This CO is none of those. He is a regular guy.

As he walked up I thought to myself, this must be such a hard duty to fulfill. If the family had asked him, or if the Commissioner had expected it of him, he would not be able to decline. I wondered if he was up for it.

But he got up and he turned to the family and said, “Thank you for giving me this gift of being able to say goodbye for all of us”. An easy out for people who are not natural show-offs is to read a passage from someone else’s writing. He did not. He didn’t even bring his own notes. Palumbo looked the family in the eye and spoke from his heart.

He explained how Mike got to know people over his time at the 70th. He told us about how Mike was a union delegate for 10 years and got to know the other officers by representing them. The CO told us a funny story of how it somehow got into his file that he had been an actor. When the CO asked him about it, Mike had no idea what he was talking about. Someone may have played a joke. Or perhaps they got confused because Mike confessed, “I am planning on writing a screenplay one of these days.” From then on, what movies Mike liked were a topic of discussion.

Mike would loan out his copy of “The Pope Of Greenwich Village”, his favorite movie. “This gave me an idea” explained the CO. “Mike loves the food along Coney Island Avenue. I believe that Mike was a Pakistani born in an Irishman’s body.” For the only time on this sad day, the room broke into laughter. But he wasn’t exactly joking.

“Mike loved all of the food and culture along Coney Island Avenue. On Ramadan, we would find Mike managing the parking at the mosques, and making small talk with the Imams. He loved the social part of this job. I finally told him I thought he should call his screenplay “The Pope Of Coney Island Avenue.” At close to midnight that night, the CO got a text from Mike saying he had been up thinking about it and agreed it was a good title for his screenplay.

The whole ceremony was beautifully done. But there is nothing like hearing from a guy who knew him. Palumbo was speaking from the heart. He was telling true stories, and he was uniting the whole room. He spoke directly to the family. But he was talking to his team too. He was showing them that he notices and listens to them. At this moment we were all part of the same team. This was the worst kind of moment and we were going to get through it together. It’s just not every day that ones see raw leadership like this. When the eulogy ended, for the only time on this sad day, the crowd burst into applause.

Outside, the officers lined up again. The street was still shut down. The pallbearers loaded the coffin in the hearse. The honor guard went through a ritual of folding a flag and presenting it to the CO. It was extremely cold. But most of the mourners stood in the street and watched.

Afterwards, I saw some officers in the nearby pizza parlor. They weren’t the old Irish guard that had mostly filled the church. These were young people of color, the next generation of officers. I asked what they thought of Palumbo’s eulogy. “He nailed it,” one said. The others nodded. I think Mike would have been pleased. “He just nailed it.”

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