Nassau record on 'deadly force' defies probability

Nassau police deadly force incidents.

Nassau police deadly force incidents. (Credit: Newsday Photo Illustration/ Arturo Jimenez)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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It's hard to determine where to start in considering a Sunday Newsday investigative report on how the Nassau police department's Deadly Force Response Team has, since at least 2006, found every incident to be justified.

Is it that Newsday had to build its report from news reports, lawsuits, court records and other documents because the department denied requests for information on the outcome of deadly force investigations?

Is it that the department -- in what information it offered up -- provided conflicting statistics on deadly force incidents, a lapse one policing expert called "amazing"?


Interactive: 35 Nassau police deadly force incidents


Is it that the department's response team, tasked with determining within 24 hours whether a use of deadly force was justified, has not determined a single case to be otherwise in at least seven years?

Some of those cases involved police firing on suspects incorrectly believing they were armed, shooting people who later were not convicted of a crime, and taking action that one jury later would call excessive in handing down a multimillion-dollar award to a suspect.

But the department's homicide squad, which reviews every such case, found no instance to be unjustified over the same period of time. And Nassau's district attorney's office hasn't found what it called "provable criminality" in any suspected deadly force incident since Kathleen Rice took office in 2006.

Such an extended record in justified deadly force incidents -- there have been 46 in Nassau, compared with 13 in Suffolk since 2006, according to the Newsday report -- would be enviable for any police department.

But that -- although not impossible -- would seem to defy probability, along with an assessment from a second policing expert who, at Newsday's request, reviewed two of department's post-shooting investigation reports.

"What you have here is a really thick blue curtain," Geoffrey P. Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology and criminal justice professor -- who is one of the nation's leading experts on police use of deadly force -- told Newsday.

"You've got a situation where cops pretty much have immunity in violating laws, if this is the sort of investigation they're doing," he said, noting that the reports were "full of boilerplate language" and lacked key details.

A source told Newsday the police department has completed an investigation into a recent high-profile case -- the shooting death of Andrea Rebello, a Hofstra University student held hostage by an intruder in May.

The department has determined that shooting to be justified, the source said. A spokesman for the DA's office said it had not completed its own review.

The investigative team report on Sunday was the latest in a series of revelations that raise serious, troubling questions about how Nassau's department operates and its system of investigating and disciplining officers.

County Executive Edward Mangano was unavailable for comment Monday. And questions to police commissioner Thomas Dale garnered, via the department's communications office, this e-mailed response:

"Commissioner Dale is committed to leading a well-disciplined and transparent police department to serve the citizens of Nassau County. He constantly reviews policies and procedures, with his executive staff, to deliver the most effective policing services.

"Recently, Commissioner Dale, working with the Nassau legislature, changed the way discipline is administered, making himself solely responsible for police conduct in Nassau County and he will continue to administer discipline as warranted."

For decades, the use of deadly force by police has been a source of concern for residents in communities around the nation. Analysis of such incidents makes for better training, which makes for better field decisions in a job that demands on-the-spot, life-and-death decision-making.

Yet, according to spokesmen for Nassau's police and the district attorney's office, records of deadly force-related investigations are not separated on a spreadsheet or database.

That must change.

So, too, must Nassau's policy on releasing relevant information on investigations and discipline, which -- despite the commissioner's statement about transparency -- remain firmly behind closed doors.