Nassau's fight for police secrecy is wrong

Late Nassau County Legis. and Presiding Officer Peter Late Nassau County Legis. and Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt. (Oct. 12, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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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 ...

Peter Schmitt, presiding officer of Nassau County's legislature, is due in federal court today to face contempt charges for disclosing information from an internal police investigation. But he won't be represented by the county attorney.

That's because the county attorney -- at the behest of Nassau's police officers' union -- drew up a confidentiality agreement Schmitt is alleged to have violated.

Schmitt never signed an agreement. And, it turns out, he never reviewed a copy of a 700-plus page report detailing how police mishandled domestic abuse calls in the case of a young mother, Jo'Anna Bird, who later would be tortured and killed by her ex-boyfriend.

What Schmitt -- and other county lawmakers -- opted for instead was a police briefing on the report's major findings. It's worth noting that Schmitt had to go to court, fighting the administration of County Executive Edward Mangano and County Attorney John Ciampoli, to gain that right.

Even in condensed form, however, the report enraged Schmitt -- and county lawmakers who tried to determine whether there was a way to release the document.

Schmitt talked to a television reporter about how stunned and disgusted he was. He said so again during a public meeting. He also talked to Thomas Dale, then-nominee for Nassau police commissioner, for assurances that what happened in the Bird case would never happen again.

Schmitt went to extremes to do his job -- starting when he rejected the administration's request to blindly authorize a $7.7 million borrowing for a court settlement with Bird's mother.

To this day, Schmitt cannot hold a hearing on police procedures and why they differed before Dale ordered officers retrained on domestic abuse policy. He couldn't even reference the case during Dale's confirmation hearing.

That's crazy because generations of Nassau residents will be paying off the borrowing. That's unacceptable because residents have a right to know how well their police department performs.

Still, Nassau works hard to ensure that police matters -- from the Bird investigation to details behind recent allegations of police misconduct -- remain secret. Their position -- as officials often and conveniently assert -- lies in a 1976 state law, 50-a.

Long before Mangano, the county hid behind that statute. Officials know full well that the law's intent -- to stop defense attorneys from digging up histories of officers testifying at trial to try to damage their credibility -- can be satisfied by redacting names and other identifying material from reports.

But Nassau routinely denies requests for public information on internal police matters. And the county usually goes on to fight such requests in court.

The state's highest court has ruled against government agencies hiding behind blanket assertions that 50-a trumps New York's Freedom of Information Law.

"The courts have taken an increasingly harsh approach to government agencies that don't respect their responsibilities under FOIL," said Corey Stoughton of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting for release of Nassau police records.

The NYCLU has had success in such matters. Last year it won release of more than 800 detailed New York City Police Department internal reports on officers firing at civilians after the city dropped an appeal of a court decision to release them.

In Nassau, the county's quest for secrecy has arrived in federal court, ensnaring a lawmaker who dared demand public information and, in residents' interest acted on it.

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