Editorial: What are Nassau County police hiding?

Editorial: What are Nassau County police hiding?

Exactly what are the Nassau County police hiding?

That seems to be a fair question following a national study by the Vera Institute, which found Nassau County tied for the second-lowest score for police transparency in the United States. The county scored 12 out of 100 in the survey.

The lowest-ranked police department among the 94 cities and counties? Birmingham, Ala. Most people would agree that having your criminal justice system ranked at the bottom of the list with a city in Alabama is not a good thing.

Nassau County, according to the report from the Vera Institute, a not-for-profit that advocates for criminal justice reforms, scored a 0 in every category except for an 81 in police contact information and a 100 in policies.

The departments were judged on their data being “accessible,” “usable,” and “meaningful,” according to the report

The study prompted longtime critics of the Nassau County Police Department to renew calls for a civilian review board to evaluate complaints of police misconduct.

These complaints in Nassau County are currently handled by an Internal Affairs unit manned by police. This is known as the fox guarding the chicken house.

“My concern and, I think everyone’s concern, is that without any oversight, and in Nassau there is zero oversight, there is only Internal Affairs,” Susan Gottehrer, the director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a phone interview with Blank Slate Media.

The numbers support Gottehrer’s point.

From 2016 to 2021, Nassau County 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 out money to settle the case while also barring the accuser from speaking publicly about the allegations.

The Nassau County Police Department offered better numbers n 2022. They said that from January 2022 to June 2022 187 complaints were filed and 15 were deemed founded. They also said there were 126 founded allegations in 2021 and 101 in 2021. But the police did not disclose the number of complaints those two years and offered no details for any year.

Contrast this with New York City, which established a Citizen Complaint Review Board in 1993. The board includes more than 100 civilian investigators who attempt to verify the complaint it receives.

“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,” New York Civil Liberties Union Supervising Attorney Bobby Hodgson said in an interview with Blank Slate Media earlier this year.

The New York City Law Department also publishes a semi-annual report on misconduct matters against the police, which includes the names of both parties, a police shield number and the total payout amount if applicable. Nassau County doesn’t.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo had required police departments across the state to provide reform plans in 2021 following the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis by a police officer.

But under then Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, the reform plan did not include a civilian review board or a police inspector general’s office that would have subpoena power and would provide oversight over all policies, directives, memos and complaints.

Three Nassau County Legislators – Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), the minority leader; Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury); and Carrié Solages (D-Lawrence) – asked state Attorney General Letitia James to establish an independent office to monitor misconduct in the Nassau County Police Department after the county Legislature approved Curran’s plan. All three are Democrats and all three are people of color as is James.

James, in a letter sent to the legislators, acknowledged the benefits of establishing a remote office and criticized the county for not including “meaningful checks on law enforcement.” James said she lacked the necessary funding to establish a remote oversight office in Nassau.

But she added that “it is our firm intention that the office give special scrutiny to those jurisdictions where local accountability and formal oversight is lacking, and that certainly includes Nassau County.”

Nassau has declined to turn over records of police investigations and complaints despite the repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a in June 2020, which permitted police departments to withhold misconduct and other personnel records.

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed an order to show cause against the Nassau County Police Department in March in its ongoing efforts to obtain misconduct and personnel records.

The NYCLU has requested access to Nassau’s department disciplinary records, use of force, field interviews, civilian complaints and investigative reports, among others through a Freedom of Information Law request in 2020.

The police department was ordered by the Nassau County Supreme Court to turn over disciplinary records after June 2020 within 60 days from the order handed down by the Nassau County Supreme Court on May 2, 2022. The police have yet to obey the order.

“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,”  NYCLU’s Hodgson said. “In a world where these records are secret, the public knows zero” about how the police police themselves.

But what about the quality of policing in Nassau County? Would the reforms supported by critics harm the quality of policing in Nassau?

The county was ranked the safest county in the country by U.S. News & World Report amid declining major crimes and increased spending on police and fire protection during the last two years of Curran’s administration.

Nassau County Executive Bruce, who defeated Curran in a campaign that blamed bail reform laws on a spike in crime during the COVID pandemic, questioned U.S. News & World Report’s methodology in ranking Nassau first.

But Blakeman still reappointed Curran’s police commissioner, Patrick Ryder.

He also recently approved an 8-½ year contract with the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association that he said “keeps our Police Department at the highest levels of salary in the nation but at the same time has provisions that enhance the safety of our communities and guards the taxpayers money.”

This took place after major crimes increased 41% in Nassau County in 2022, led by a spike in those against property.

By comparison, neighboring Suffolk County saw a 15% increase and New York City saw a 22% jump in major crimes tempered by a year-end drop.

Unlike New York City and in keeping with its usual practice, the county has yet to release crime statistics for January, February or March 2023.

Year-to-year statistics can be misleading. But when you have among the highest paid police forces in the country, the bar is set very high.

The same can be said for transparency.

If Nassau police are as good as they are well paid, there is no reason not to allow people from outside the department to review complaints of misconduct.

If all Nassau police are living up to the highest standards in policing, a civilian review board will confirm it.

If some police are not living up to those standards, they can then be disciplined and, if needed, replaced. This would deter others from crossing the line.

This will, in turn, improve the relationship between the police and the community – an important part of effective policing.

A civilian review board will also answer the question of what, if anything,  Nassau County police are hiding.

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