NEW YORK — Edward Byrne should have been turning 52 on Wednesday.
It’s been 30 years since the rookie cop celebrated his 22nd birthday on Feb. 21, 1988.
Five days after a birthday that was filled with so much promise, Byrne was assassinated in his patrol car on Feb. 26, 1988, as he guarded the home of a witness in South Jamaica, Queens.
“It was a turning point,” Byrne’s older brother, Larry, said Wednesday from the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral where a 30th anniversary memorial Mass was held. “And the effort began to take back New York City from crack dealers and gangs.”
All these years later, Larry Byrne is now a Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters with the New York City Police Department.
He’s remained committed to making sure New Yorkers never forget his brother’s sacrifice, which came during a time when the homicide rate was nearing 2,000 a year in the city.
At one point, the extended family of drug czar Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols was earning $400,000 a week in crack cocaine sales — with crack vials strewn on sidewalks near schools and parks.
“You had ‘Fat Cat’ Nichols. You had Howard ‘Pappy’ Mason. These are the gangs that ruled the drug trade and controlled massive amounts of money,” said John Miller, now the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
Hon. Zachary Carter, now the city’s corporation counsel, was a criminal court judge in Queens in 1988.
“What I remember about that time was dominated by the crack trade,” Carter said.
Miller was working as a journalist back in 1988 and, like this reporter, he covered the joint NYPD/FBI raids on Fat Cat Nichols’ South Jamaica empire in August 1988, which included takedowns at delis and family homes.
The order to shoot a cop had come from the jailed drug enforcer, Howard Mason, in February 1988.
“They decided they controlled the streets, that they were the police,” Miller said of the gang of four that carried out Byrne’s murder as the young cop worked the midnight to 8 a.m. tour.
Byrne lived in Massapequa with his parents. His father, Matt — a retired officer— had sent his son off to work with the words, “Have a safe tour.”
But “Eddie did not have a safe tour," his brother said.
"We got that knock on the door at 5 a.m. from the department chaplain. No good news comes at 5 a.m.," Larry Byrne said.
Miller said New York is now the safest, large city in America because of “the avalanche that started that morning.”
“It was a catalyst that morning,” Miller said, “that turned around the city.”
The current NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill called that time "a call to action. It launched a nationwide movement.”
Then-President George H.W. Bush had vowed to finance a crackdown on drug gangs around the country, with his Department of Justice forming the Byrne Justice Program, which provides money to this day.
Msgr. Robert Romano, the NYPD chaplain, said of former president H.W. Bush: “He kept Eddie’s shield on his desk all through his Presidency.”
Larry Byrne pointed out all the honors his late brother and family have received since the young cop’s murder: a street sign outside the 103rd Precinct in Jamaica; a school in the Bronx named for Byrne; a Queens park; and a sports stadium in his Massapequa hometown.
But Byrne said the best legacy was the difference his brother’s death made in turning a tide.
“That’s a life of meaning,” Larry Byrne said. “That’s a life to be proud of.”
Byrne’s voice broke when he said, “I often think if one officer’s life is saved, that’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
A poignant moment came Wednesday when Larry Byrne referred to the police dog that was sniffing for explosives outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, when NYPD personnel, old and new, arrived for Mass.
The German Shepherd is called K-9 Eddie, after Edward Byrne.
After the Mass, Larry Byrne paused to pet the canine named for his late brother.
Byrne had just told the congregation in St. Patrick’s that the pain of losing a brother or son never really eases, but the fact that so many came together 30 years later to honor Eddie meant a lot.