Jesse Bonsignore was either a menace who threatened to kill a Suffolk County police officer or a pacifist unjustifiably slain by a cop in Manorville last year, according to attorneys for each.
Following a 16-month probe that resulted in a 14-page report released on September 9, New York State Attorney General Letitia James’ Office of Special Investigation (OSI) cleared Officer James Skidmore of any wrongdoing for fatally shooting Bonsignore during what authorities described as a struggle between the two men. But Bonsignore’s family accused Skidmore of wrongful death, excessive force, fabricating evidence and 12 other claims in a lawsuit filed in May at Central Islip federal court in which the plaintiffs are seeking $85 million from the county, police department and the officer.
“Jesse Bonsignore was focused on working hard, earning a living and being the best father he could be,” states the lawsuit filed by his daughter, Carmela Bonsignore. “(He) was a deeply religious and moral man who struggled with mental health issues … opposed to violence.”
The incident is emblematic of the type of police encounter that prompted New York State to mandate police departments statewide to enact criminal justice reforms designed to decrease the likelihood of police using deadly physical force against civilians, particularly those with mental health issues.
The police department declined to comment, citing pending litigation, and an attorney for the county could not be reached.
“The arrest and/or detention, if any, were reasonable and based upon probable cause to believe that the plaintiff’s decedent had committed a crime and/or offense,” the county stated in its reply to the lawsuit in July, when it asked U.S. District Court Judge Eric N. Vitaliano to dismiss the case.
FACE TO FACE
The events that led up to the fatal shooting started with a man concerned with a car parked on the grass on the side of the road in front of his house on Bauer Avenue at about 10:15 p.m. on May 20, 2021.
The man didn’t see anyone in the maroon 2009 Hyundai Sonata, so he took his dog for a walk, peered inside with a flashlight, spotted a man lying down in the backseat and then called 911, according to the AG’s report. The caller told a 911 operator that the man was “hiding” in the backseat and was “hunkered down in the back of the car,” the report stated. The operator put a call out about a person “hiding in the backseat” of a car and three minutes later, Officer Skidmore arrived at the scene at 10:49 p.m., parking his police SUV facing Bonsignore’s car.
Bonsignore, a 44-year-old Uber driver, was sleeping. Skidmore, a 20-year veteran of the department who patrols the Seventh Precinct, woke him up. The officer told Bonsignore he wasn’t in trouble, but the incident escalated almost immediately, according to police and the attorney general’s report. Uber confirmed the driver was off duty.
“The officer engaged him, and a struggle ensued,” police stated in a news release after the shooting. “The officer fired his gun, striking the man.”
The attorney general’s report revealed further details.
“I know my rights. I’m going to kill you,” Bonsignore allegedly yelled at Skidmore upon being woken up, according to the report.
Hearing that, Skidmore called for backup, ordered Bonsignore to remain in the vehicle and told him to “calm down,” but police told investigators that Bonsignore disregarded that order and got out of the car. The officer told investigators that Bonsignore was not aggressive but seemed “off.”
Skidmore patted down Bonsignore, who police said had a folding knife with a wooden handle in his waistband that he allegedly reached for more than once, the report stated. That’s when the struggle ensued, according to authorities, with Bonsignore allegedly putting the officer in a bear hug at one point.
“Officer Skidmore said he tried to handcuff Mr. Bonsignore to prevent him from grabbing his knife, that Mr. Bonsignore resisted being handcuffed, and that they fell to the ground in a struggle,” the report stated. “Officer Skidmore said Mr. Bonsignore pulled on Officer Skidmore’s gun holster several times during the struggle on the ground, and that he tried to control Mr. Bonsignore’s arms to prevent Mr. Bonsignore from taking his gun. Officer Skidmore said he drew his gun from his holster to keep it away from Mr. Bonsignore, and Mr. Bonsignore grabbed the wrist of his gun hand. Officer Skidmore fired two shots, striking Mr. Bonsignore.”
The 911 caller told investigators that he witnessed part of the altercation but went back inside before shots were fired. Police seized the 911 caller’s security camera footage that partially captured the incident, but the attorney general’s report states that it does not provide a clear view. It noted that audio of the gunshots and some of what the officers say was recorded, but the report does not say Bonsignore was recorded threatening the officer.
“Bonsignore let go of Officer Skidmore’s wrist after the first shot,” the report stated. “Officer Skidmore said he quickly fired another shot towards Mr. Bonsignore’s torso while he rose up to a standing position. Officer Skidmore said he heard Mr. Bonsignore say, ‘Why,’ and then Mr. Bonsignore stopped moving.”
Skidmore told OSI: “I thought I was going to die.” It was his first time firing his service weapon outside of the firing range for training.
The altercation lasted less than 10 minutes. A lieutenant arrived at 10:54 p.m., just as a second officer who had arrived on the scene was placing handcuffs on Bonsignore, who was lying in the road, according to the report. The lieutenant checked, but did not feel a pulse. A member of the Manorville Rescue Squad pronounced him dead at 11:06 p.m.
An autopsy by the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office found that the first shot, which struck Bonsignore in the lower chest, is the one that killed him, according to the report. A toxicology report indicated there were no drugs in Mr. Bonsignore’s urine or blood, it added.
Skidmore was taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center for treatment of non-life threatening injuries, although OSI noted that it could not corroborate the nature of his injury and a nurse stated he was not injured.
“OSI concluded that a prosecutor would not be able to disprove beyond a reasonable doubt at trial that the officer who shot Mr. Bonsignore was justified,” the attorney general’s report stated. “Under New York’s justification law, a person may use deadly physical force to defend against the imminent use of deadly physical force by another. When the defense of justification is raised at trial, the prosecutor must disprove it beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, Mr. Bonsignore repeatedly reached for his knife, attempted to take the officer’s firearm, and more than once threatened to kill the officer. Based on the law and the evidence, OSI determined that criminal charges could not be pursued against the officer.”
The family, however, argues in the lawsuit that the officer was unprovoked as Bonsignore was not engaged in any criminal activity, the officer lacked justification and failed to perform CPR on Bonsignore after he was shot. The lawsuit also alleged that the county has not turned over key evidence in the case, such as the officer’s disciplinary history. Records show the officer was sued in 2012 following his involvement in a car crash with his patrol car.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs and defense were still arguing over setting a timeline for when the county will turn over documents relevant to the case as of the latest court conference on September 20, records show.
CASE FOR CAMERAS
Although Suffolk officials had determined in March 2021 that all county police officers should have body-worn cameras (BWC), the program had not been implemented two months later. Skidmore neither had a BWC nor a dashboard camera.
Suffolk police “will deploy body-worn cameras as standard police-worn equipment for all officers who engage with the public in the course of their professional duties,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone had said.
The Seventh Precinct commenced a BWC pilot program this summer with “all uniformed police officers outfitted with BWCs by the fall of 2022,” according to the attorney general’s report, in which state investigators “urge SCPD to implement this initiative as soon as practicable.”
Bonsignore’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment and his family was unavailable, but had called for restraint.
“Why does it have to be the gun?” his brother Derk Bonsignore told Eyewitness News. “Why was my brother not tased by the police department? “It makes no sense to myself or anybody in my family why my brother was harmed.”