QUEENS — An NYPD detective shot and killed an unarmed man behind the wheel of a car on the Grand Central Parkway on Thursday morning as an off-duty cop slept in the back seat, police said.
Noel Polanco, 22, was in his 2012 Honda Fit Hybrid with two female passengers — one of them a police officer who was placed on modified duty recently because of a disciplinary issue — when he was spotted driving erratically in the eastbound lanes about 5:15 a.m., police said.
Friends said Polanco, whose nickname was Sparks, was an U.S. Army reservist who lived with his mother and recently lost his stepfather to suicide.
"He's been stressed since, but he never really did anything wrong," said Tito Cordero, 27, a friend of Polanco's. "He doesn't fight. He doesn't drink. He doesn't smoke. He just works to get his mind off all the problems."
Polanco allegedly cut between two unmarked NYPD Emergency Service Unit Apprehension Team vehicles, police said. He then darted into the left lane and tailgated another vehicle, the NYPD said. After that vehicle didn't move, Polanco shifted back between the two police vehicles in the right lane, hitting the brakes and forcing the NYPD vehicles to slow down, sources said.
Cops turned on their lights and sirens and attempted to pull Polanco's car over, sources said. The NYPD vehicles positioned themselves in front of and behind the Honda until it finally came to a stop at Exit 7 near LaGuardia Airport, police said.
Two cops — a uniformed sergeant and a detective — came out of the police vehicle in front of the Honda and approached the vehicle.
As Det. Hassan Hamdy approached on the passenger side of Polanco's car, he saw Polanco reach down and grab an object that appeared to be a power tool, sources said. Hamdy fired a single shot through the passenger window into Polanco's abdomen, sources said.
"Noel didn't have a chance to put his hands up. They screamed, 'Put up your hands!' and shot at the same time," said Diane DeFerrari, 36, a bartender who was riding in the front passenger seat, according to the New York Daily News. "It was simultaneous. There was a pop and Noel gasped."
Sources said DeFerrari told investigators that Polanco's hands were on the wheel when Hamdy shot him.
"They acted in pure road rage," DeFerrari told the newspaper.
The off-duty police officer who was sleeping in the backseat said she woke up when she heard a pop, sources said. The officer, who sources identified as Vanessa Rodriguez, was placed on modified duty after she was arrested in June for allegedly shoplifting a sweater from an H&M store in Queens.
Rodriguez and DeFerrari did not appear to be hurt, police said, and it was unclear if they were taken into custody.
EMS crews rushed Polanco to New York Hospital Queens, where he died about 45 minutes later, an NYPD spokesman said.
"I never had to worry about him," said Cecilia Reyes, 46, Polanco's mom, according to the News. "He had never been in a precinct in his life. He was in the military and would never do anything to endanger his career."
"They are going to pay for this," she added, the paper reported. "We want justice."
Hamdy is a nine-year NYPD veteran who's never fired his service weapon before, sources said. In May, Hamdy helped save five people who were trapped in a burning Queens apartment, the New York Times reported. In 2008, Hamdy and another officer successfully negotiated the surrender of a disturbed Queens man who had attacked someone with a machete, the Daily News reported.
The Queens District Attorney is investigating the shooting, a spokeswoman said.
Polanco, who didn't have a criminal record, worked at a Queens Honda dealership during the day and at hookah lounges at night, friends said. "He just likes to work," Cordero said. "It's just better than being on the street doing dumb stuff."
Cordero added, "The good die young. He was a good kid. He didn't do anything wrong."
Friends and neighbors described Polanco as someone who steered clear of trouble and loved serving in the military. His boss at the Honda dealership said he was a "disciplined worker."
"He was a cool dude," said Polanco's neighbor Tom Williams, 44. "He wasn't about no trouble. I can't believe he died. That's crazy...I'm extremely shocked by this. He was in the military. He was a good kid. He served and protected his country."
Hamdy is with the Emergency Services Unit's A Team, which sometimes tangles with violent suspects while tracking down wanted criminals. The team was returning from serving a warrant at a Bronx apartment when the fatal incident with Polanco unfolded.
Hamdy and several other officers were defendants in a 2007 lawsuit alleging that cops had threatened a Queens man and his grandmother, then roughed up the man, leaving him bloodied and in need of hospitalization. The man and his grandmother were awarded settlements of $210,000 and $25,000 respectively.