The New York Civil Liberties Union filed an order to show cause against the Nassau County Police Department last week in its ongoing efforts to obtain misconduct and personnel records.
The organization requested access to the department’s disciplinary records, use of force, field interviews, civilian complaints and investigative reports, among others through a Freedom of Information Law request in 2020, according to court documents.
The police department has denied the requests despite the repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a in 2020, which permitted police departments from disclosing misconduct and other personnel records.
Bobby Hodgson, supervising attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Blank Slate Media that the police department was ordered by the Nassau County Supreme Court to turn over disciplinary records after June of 2020 within 60 days from the order handed down on May 2, 2022.
Efforts to reach a representative from the police department for comment were unavailing.
Hodgson said the organization is requesting the police department to produce all of the documents requested in the New York Civil Liberties Union’s initial Freedom of Information Law request after the repeal of 50-a.
State Supreme Court Justice Roy S. Mahon denied the union’s motion to mandate the department provide all of the misconduct data requested prior to September 2020, when 50-a was repealed.
Obtaining these records from the police department, Hodgson said, is the first step needed to provide transparency to the public and determine if real change is needed in Nassau and other municipalities in New York.
“Turning these records over is the first necessary step in having any sort of informed public discussion about what police accountability looks like in Nassau County,” Hodgson told Blank Slate Media. “In a world where these records are secret, the public knows zero about how the police [department] police[s] themselves.”
Hodgson also discussed the importance of having oversight for policing, such as New York City’s Citizen Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that probes into alleged misconduct reported by residents.
The board was established in 1993 by former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and the New York City Council.
“In many instances, the Citizen Complaint Review Board has undertaken an investigation, gathered evidence and found that misconduct occurred and an officer did, in fact, do something inappropriate and recommended levels of discipline all the way up to firing,” Hodgson said.
Hodgson said every county or municipalities situation may not be indicative of New York City’s, but said having the proper reports, statistics and resources for looking into alleged misconduct can aid in effective policing.
“Having independent oversight creates some control for people who are not part of the police agency themselves,” Hodgson said.
Some Nassau’s Democratic legislators, in 2021, called for New York Attorney General Letitia James to establish a third-party oversight office for the county’s police department.
Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), Legislator Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) and Legislator Carrié Solages (D-Lawrence) all signed a letter sent in March 2021 after the county Legislature approved a plan to reform and reinvent policing put forward by former Nassau County Executive Laura Curran.
Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo had required police departments across the state to provide reform plans following the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis by a police officer.
James, in a letter sent to the legislators in mid-April, acknowledged the benefits of establishing a remote office and criticized the county for not including “meaningful checks on law enforcement.” She also cited the lack of necessary funding to establish a remote oversight office in Nassau.
As of now, the county relies on the state Law Department’s Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office for oversight of the police department. The legislators proposed to have a regional branch of the office focus solely on any misconduct in the department.
Nassau County currently leaves reviews of possible misconduct to the police themselves and from 2016 to 2021 reported zero “founded” cases of false arrest and excessive force.
But during that time 30 people won court judgments against county police for 41 allegations.
For 38 of the allegations, the Nassau County Attorney’s office paid money to settle the case while also barring the accuser from speaking publicly about the allegations.
Hodgson said the New York Civil Liberties Union has run into similar stalemates with “many other police departments” in New York.
The organization made requests to more than a dozen agencies in the state, some “fighting tooth and nail to either delay or outright deny” the union’s Freedom of Information Law requests.
“At this point, I would say Nassau is behind the curve,” he said. “We are eagerly awaiting more productions and for these cases to move forward in court against Nassau.”