LI lawmakers must demand answers from police officials

Nassau County Police commissioner Thomas Dale is shown Nassau County Police commissioner Thomas Dale is shown at police headquarters in Mineola. (Jan. 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Nassau County Democrats are slated to hold a news conference Monday calling for legislative hearings into the police department in the wake of Commissioner Thomas Dale's sudden resignation.

Where were the same lawmakers -- or for that matter, Suffolk legislators -- when reports first began surfacing of troubling irregularities in two of the largest suburban police departments in the nation?

Lawmakers in both counties have within their powers the ability to demand answers from police officials. Or even compel testimony at public hearings.

None of that has happened -- publicly at least -- in Nassau or Suffolk, since reports began surfacing of serious improprieties in both counties.

The incidents include an off-duty Nassau officer shooting an unarmed cabdriver in Suffolk, and another off-duty Nassau officer pulling a gun on an unsuspecting bar manager in Farmingdale.

And a recent Newsday investigative story reported that, since at least 2006, every use of deadly force by Nassau officers has been found by the department's deadly force response team to be justified -- a statistic that defies probability.

In Suffolk, lawmakers last week accepted a settlement of a U.S. Justice Department investigation into alleged discriminatory policing against Hispanics that includes at least a year of federal monitoring.

But the force's chief of department, James Burke, remains under federal investigation to determine whether he violated the civil rights of a man charged in the theft of property from Burke's unmarked police vehicle. In recent testimony in a state court hearing, the suspect alleged that Burke and two other officers hit him while in custody.

And that's on top of another recent Newsday investigative story about the severe beating of a 19-year-old suspect who was admitted to a hospital as a 35-year-old John Doe -- although police identified the suspect at the scene.

In Nassau, Democrats can call all the news conferences they want -- but they are, and in the new session beginning in January will remain, the legislative minority.

Norma Gonsalves, the body's presiding officer, said in an interview Friday that she needs more information before making a decision on what, if anything, needs to come next.

"This just happened," she said of Dale's resignation after a Nassau district attorney's investigation disclosed that he had inserted himself into the politics of a county executive campaign fight.

"We need to take a breath; we need to calm down and get more information before we think about doing anything," Gonsalves said.

District Attorney Kathleen Rice found no violation of law on Dale's part for ordering the arrest of Randy White, a worker for former Freeport Mayor Andrew Hardwick's campaign who testified that Hardwick paid him per signature for petitions to put Hardwick on the ballot as a third-party candidate -- a state election law violation.

An off-duty police officer showed up at the lockup and White was served with a civil subpoena from Hardwick's lawyers -- a move that Dale would not know until later, according to the DA report. Dale has been unavailable for comment, but Mangano, in an interview Friday, said Dale defended having a hands-on approach in high-profile cases.

The last Long Island lawmaker to step out aggressively on police irregularities was the late Peter Schmitt, Nassau's former presiding officer, who, stunned after a briefing on the department's justification for paying out a $7.7-million settlement in the case of Jo'Anna Bird, who was tortured and murdered in 2010 by a boyfriend, broke a confidentiality agreement by disclosing some of what he learned.

Schmitt said there were 22 police officers mentioned in the police internal affairs report "who ought to be ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror . . . much less be wearing the badge."

He would later be held in contempt of court by a federal judge and fined.

Last week, in discussing the settlement between the U.S. government and Suffolk, Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport) was the sole lawmaker, who, while supporting police, probed behind the need for the settlement.

"The fact the Department of Justice has to make an agreement in the first place, does that indicate a lack of transparency, or that we are not communicating effectively to the public?" he asked Edward Webber, Suffolk's top cop.

It's a question lawmakers, in both counties, may want to ask themselves.

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