Link between Schenectady County Sheriff and troubled officer had tragic start

·10 min read

Jun. 6—Daniel Coppola, the former patrolman who stands accused of his second drunken driving arrest, wasn't only fired by his stepfather, Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino.

He was terminated by the man who helped convict his birth father's killer decades ago.

Coppola, a former officer with the Schenectady County Sheriff's Department, was accused by Colonie police of driving under the influence of alcohol on April 26.

On May 3, the lawyer for the 26-year-old Coppola of Rotterdam pleaded not guilty on Coppola's behalf in Colonie Town Court.

Authorities allege Coppola drove on a curb and nearly hit a utility pole with his car while more than twice the legal limit for drunkenness. His blood alcohol content was .2% — well over the legal limit in New York state of .08%. He told police he was driving home after he had consumed a couple of beers at a bar in Albany.

In the aftermath of the arrest, the Schenectady County Sheriff's Department said Coppola was terminated after an administrative review. The department said he had been an exemplary employee, with no other personnel issues there. Coppola's union filed an appeal immediately upon his termination, according to Erin Roberts, spokesperson for the county. Calls to the union have gone unanswered.

Dagostino stated that any action short of terminating Coppola would undermine the integrity, credibility and legitimacy of the Sheriff's Department.

The sheriff added in a statement that he was "disappointed and heartbroken over the actions of my son."

The linkage between Dagostino and Coppola began early in the former patrolman's life.

In November 1996, convicted ax-murderer Christopher D'Arton was sentenced to more than 27 years to life in state prison for killing Coppola's birth father, Paul Coppola in 1995.

Dagostino at the time was an investigator for the Rotterdam Police Department, one of the police agencies involved in the investigation of Paul Coppola's murder.

Coppola was 28 while his son Daniel was less than a year old at the time of his father's killing on May 18, 1995.

D'Arton was an employee of Paul Coppola's automotive business in Rotterdam.

Authorities said D'Arton killed his friend and boss at Paul Coppola's used car dealership on Helderberg Avenue in Rotterdam.

Paul Coppola's body was found days later, buried about 5 feet deep behind the auto shop.

During D'Arton's sentencing, Paul Coppola's widow, Margaret, described in court how Daniel and his older brother continued to wonder where their father was.

Speaking of Daniel, his mother told the court that he suffered even more because he'd never know his father except for what he learned of him in stories and saw in photographs.

After Daniel Coppola's arrest by Colonie police, no one answered the door at his house in Rotterdam. He did not appear in court for his arraignment because of what his lawyer, Andrew Safranko, described as a medical issue.

When Dagostino was reached by phone recently, and was asked about his stepson's tragic circumstances leading up to his arrest, the county sheriff said:

"I've commented all I'm going to comment regarding that incident," he said. "I released a press statement the day that we were made aware and it had my comments, and we're going to leave it at that."

The former investigator with the Rotterdam Police Department became county sheriff in 2010.

The New York State Police was the lead agency in the investigation of the murder of Paul Coppola, but Dagostino participated, a prosecutor said.

When Dagostino was asked about marrying the victim's widow in a case he investigated, the sheriff asserted: "I think you're crossing the line a little bit," later adding, "I don't think it's an appropriate route, and I'm kind of disappointed in you folks in doing that."

Asked when he and Margaret Coppola married — marriage licenses are not a public document — Dagostino laughed, said goodbye and hung up.

District Attorney Robert Carney said he doesn't think the relationship between Dagostino and Margaret Coppola began until after the D'Arton case was resolved.

Carney also recalled that state police took the lead on the case, which led to a confession by D'Arton.

"Dominic was a brand-new investigator," the DA said. "He sat in. But it was primarily the state police that did that investigation."

Carney said he doesn't recall Dagostino making a disclosure to the DA's office about his relationship with the victim's widow, but Carney said he didn't believe he would have had to.

"It ended up being a very successful union," Carney said. "They've been married for a long time and they have their own son who's in high school."

John Kleinig, emeritus professor of philosophy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he can imagine that relationships between investigators and victim's families happen from time to time.

Kleinig said most professional organizations — especially those that he described as "helping professions" — have codes of ethics that forbid professionals from entering into intimate relations with their clients or patients.

Such relations cloud the judgment on both sides, especially when vulnerable people are involved, Kleinig suggested.

"I would think that some such understandings should also underlie investigative practices," Kleinig said, and there is a conflict of interest concern.

"That doesn't mean it's wrong but that it may convey the wrong message — one involving bias. Appearance of conflict of interest is also a problem in the public domain," Kleinig said.

But some professional organizations put a time limit on the constraint, the professor noted. For instance, the professional relationship must have been terminated at least two years beforehand, lest there be a suspicion of residual taint, he cited as an example.

Kleinig said it should probably be reported in serious cases.

History repeated

Daniel Coppola was previously arrested for driving while impaired in May 2018, when he worked for the Schenectady Police Department. He was accused, while off duty, of driving with a blood-alcohol level of .12%.

Coppola's lawyer did not return a recent phone message. But Safranko has said his client's first arrest resulted in a non-criminal disposition.

When Safranko was asked after the arraignment if his client has a problem with alcohol, given the two drunken driving arrests while he held jobs in law enforcement, the lawyer said it was too early to get into those types of strategies and mitigating factors.

Carney, the district attorney, said he hasn't spoken to Dagostino about his stepson's arrest in Colonie and subsequent termination from the sheriff's department.

"But I think he did the right thing," Carney said. '"It's unfortunate. I'm sure it was difficult for him because he really did raise those two boys."

Daniel Coppola worked for Schenectady police as a patrolman from July 2015 until he left the organization four months after his alcohol-related driving arrest in Schenectady, on Sept. 8, 2018.

His former boss, Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford, described Daniel Coppola as an exemplary employee while he was working. But he acknowledged the 2018 arrest somewhat blemished his time with the department.

"I have no issues of the job that he did," Clifford said. "Very respectful. For my knowledge, no complaints from the public."

Clifford said the department held Daniel Coppola accountable for the off-duty drunken driving arrest by levying a 30-day suspension without pay.

"He did not fight it. He came back after taking his punishment with a good attitude. He never complained; didn't become a poison to the agency. And then, for his own reasons he decided to leave and go to work at the sheriff's department. He did so on good standing."

The Schenectady police chief spoke generally about police officers getting second chances after they have made mistakes while off the clock.

"I think as a society, we're becoming more forgiving of people when they make mistakes, especially if they take accountability for them and they serve their punishment."

But Clifford also suggested police officers are held to a higher standard. Prospective officers are told as much during the interview process.

"He was given a second chance and it certainly has repeated itself," Clifford said.

"I can tell you this: I know this young man, and he's got a good heart. He's a good person. I think it's indicative of the stressors that are on police officers today.

"I'm not aware of an alcohol problem that he had, or that any of my employees that still know him knew that he had, and I say this because when he left and went over to the sheriff's department, it wasn't long after that that he became a canine officer. In that role, he worked closely with our agency, through the canine program, where he would be here often doing gun and explosive work with his dog.

"The fact that nobody knew, possibly, what he had going on is a concern of mine. Are there officers out there who are stressed to the point where they're doing something like drinking, and they're disguising it?" Clifford said.

Officers nationwide are under heightened scrutiny, the chief said, while some are concerned about becoming the subject of the next viral video.

"I don't know if that's the concern with Dan specifically," Clifford said. "But it should be an eye-opener for all of us in this profession and even the community... That holding police accountable is one thing, but making the police the enemy is a slippery slope that can't happen."

Clifford, who was a lieutenant when Schenectady hired Daniel Coppola, said he was aware of the tragic circumstances involving Daniel Coppola's father.

"I don't think he liked to talk about it a lot," Clifford said. "I am aware of some challenges he's received in his life. I know that he was raised by two loving parents, his mom and his stepdad, the sheriff. But deep down inside, when you know that that's happened to your birth father, I'm sure it could be hard. That's when I say he's got a good heart; he's a good person."

Clifford recalled Daniel Coppola had another job offer from another local police department, but wound up choosing Schenectady.

"That just shows you the kind of kind of person he is, and that he impressed two agencies that both wanted to hire him because he's got that level of maturity in him... But clearly there's a breakdown somewhere that's indicative to get to two DWIs in a short time period.

"I see it more indicative of a problem that he's currently probably dealing with more than a behavioral thing. That's just because I know him. I wouldn't just say this about anybody I didn't know.

Clifford said he didn't want to suggest he was defending a troubled former police officer.

"I'm more critical of officers who I believe should not be police officers. And many times, we've had some police officers who have lost their jobs because of alcoholism. I think it's more common for good officers to lose their jobs because of alcoholism than bad officers to lose their job for alcoholism. Maybe it's because they care too much. Maybe it's because they carry that burden home."

There's not much help for police officers when they're off the clock, the chief suggested.

"It's one of those things — that's an expense that is hard for the city to swallow when taxes are so high," Clifford said. "But it's just so important, the investment into your human resources, especially police human resources. You invest in them to make sure that they are well, and that they are operating at a high level personally, so that when they go out and deal with people in crisis, they can adequately serve the public."