Special Police Officer Stephen Petruzzello
Cliffside Park Police Department, New Jersey
End of Watch: Monday, December 29, 2014
Tour of Duty: 1 month
Badge Number: 451
Cause of Death: Struck by vehicle
Date of Incident: December 27, 2014
Weapon Used: Not available
Suspect Info: Cited
Agency Contact Information
Police Chief Richard Gaito
Cliffside Park Police Department
525 Palisade Avenue
Cliffside Park, NJ 07010
Phone: (201) 945-3600
Special Police Officer Stephen Petruzzello succumbed to injuries sustained two days earlier when he was struck by a car on Walker Street, near First Street.
He and another officer were crossing the street at approximately 6:30 pm when they were both struck by an SUV. Both officers were transported to a local hospital where Officer Petruzzello remained until succumbing to severe head injuries. The other officer suffered non-life threatening injuries.
The driver of the vehicle was issued several traffic citations in connection with the incident.
Officer Petruzzello had served with the Cliffside Park Police Department for only one month after graduating from the police academy.
CLIFFSIDE PARK — Hours after Special Officer Stephen Petruzzello died, the borough police department awarded his family badge No. 133 and made him an honorary full-time officer — fulfilling his lifelong dream.
Petruzzello was hit by an SUV Saturday evening while crossing the street with another officer and died Monday morning.
"He lived that dream, but only for a month," Chief Richard Gaito said in an interview. "It’s tragic."
Petruzzello, 22, who graduated from the special police officer academy in November, died at 5 a.m. at Hackensack University Medical Center, said William J. Maer, the spokesman for the borough. The official cause of death has not been determined, Maer said.
"It’s the town’s way of saying, eventually, they know he would have made it" to become a full-time officer, added Capt. Bart Spinelli, who lived across the street from the young officer.
His father, Ronnie Petruzzello, thanked the community.
“We all LOVED Stephen and will continue till the end of our days!!!!!!!,” his father wrote in a statement. “The outpouring of support we received was truly astounding.”
For years, Petruzzello volunteered with the borough’s junior police academy, even before he became a special officer, Gaito said.
The youngest of three children, he lived with his parents, Spinelli said. The weightlifter regularly helped the captain move air conditioning units, blow leaves, shovel snow and mow the lawn.
“I’d grab one end and he’d look at me like, ‘just let it go,’” Spinelli recalled of moving heavy AC units. “He’d take it by himself. He was a very, very strong kid.”
Growing up, Petruzzello would stop Spinelli in passing. “He would see me and say, ‘I’m going to be a cop, too.’”
He worked at his father’s mechanic shop in North Bergen every Saturday, the captain said.
“His family was extremely proud of him,” Spinelli added. “He always knew what he wanted to do.”
Petruzzello was quiet and reserved, but was also “a little sneaky with the sense of humor,” the captain said.
When he finished at Bergen Community College next semester with a degree in criminal justice, he had hoped to take up more hours as a special officer. “He wanted to work as many hours as he could because he liked it so much,” Spinelli said. He was scheduled to work Thursday and Friday.
Outside the municipal complex still decorated with inflatable toy soldiers, wreaths and a Santa, workers hung purple and black bunting in Petruzzello’s memory. The flag has been lowered to half staff and the police officers are wearing black bands over their badges.
Petruzzello is the department’s first line of duty death, Spinelli said.
“This is clearly the saddest day I have had during my tenure as chief of the department,” Gaito said in a statement. “Officer Petruzzello was a bright, hardworking young man, with a lifetime of potential before him.”
Petruzzello was crossing Walker Street near First Street with special police officer Thaier Abdallah, 24, around 6:30 p.m. Saturday when they were struck by a Honda CR-V, police said.
Resident Anie Kalayjian, 62, who was driving the SUV, was issued motor vehicle summonses in connection with reckless driving, careless driving, failure to yield to pedestrians and seatbelt use, the chief said. Drug or alcohol use is not suspected.
She has not been charged with a crime, Maer said. Kalayjian told WABC that she did not see the officers.
“I’m in shock — we didn’t see them. They were wearing black uniforms with no reflective stripes,” she told the television station.
Gaito said Kalayjian’s car was traveling west to east on Walker Street, while the officers were walking south to north. Before Kalayjian, another car — without its headlights on — stopped for them and let them pass. Then Kalayjian’s SUV hit them.
When reached Monday morning by The Record, Kalayjian was crying and said, “I can’t talk right now.”
Kalayjian’s website characterizes her as an international expert on the psychological effects of trauma in disaster victims.
She has private psychotherapeutic practices in both Manhattan and Cliffside Park, and serves as an adjunct professor of psychology at Fordham University.
Petruzzello underwent surgery Saturday night at Hackensack University Medical Center. Abdallah suffered less serious injuries and was released from the hospital Sunday. A man identifying himself as Abdallah’s brother answered the door at the family home on Monday and said he was resting inside. He declined to comment further.
Both men had told their police academy instructor they had hopes of becoming full-time police officers. Abdallah is also a volunteer firefighter. Petruzzello graduated from Cliffside Park High School in 2011, according to his Facebook page.
On the Facebook page, Petruzzello’s brother-in-law posted, “R.I.P. my brother in law Stephen Petruzzello. You will be missed soooooo much!!! We love you!!!!”
“We will never forget Officer Petruzzello and the contribution he made to our community,” Acting Mayor Thomas Calabrese said in a statement.
Some local police departments, including the Palisades Interstate Parkway, Bergenfield, Cresskill, Rutherford, and Bergenfield, tweeted condolences to the Cliffside Park Police Department and Petruzzello’s family Monday morning.
“These brave men are examples of the many men and women across our nation that put their lives on the line each and every day protecting our communities," U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. said in a statement on Monday. "We owe these heroes an enormous debt of gratitude for their sacrifice.”
Bergen Community College also recognized the studtn.
“Bergen Community College mourns the passing of student Stephen Petruzzello. The College offers its condolences to his family and friends,” the school said in a statement.
Special police officers carry a radio, handcuffs, a baton and pepper spray but not guns. They can arrest people.