Nassau police panel to review use of deadly force

Nassau County police cars in Syosset on Dec.

Nassau County police cars in Syosset on Dec. 28, 2013. (Credit: Jim Staubitser)

The Nassau Police Department has created a Deadly Force Review Board to examine all police-involved shootings and other incidents where deadly force was used -- a new level of internal oversight for the department that some law enforcement experts say is long overdue.

The five-member review board, composed of department brass, will examine every investigation initiated by Nassau's existing Deadly Force Response Team to determine whether the officer involved complied with department policy, whether training or tactical procedure should be modified and whether disciplinary action should be taken.

The response team will continue to review each incident where a police officer intentionally discharges a firearm at a person, unintentionally discharges a gun and causes injury and any use of force by an officer that causes physical injury or death. It will now deliver a written administrative report to the chief of department within 72 hours of the incident.


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The review board is part of a revamped use-of-force policy, which dictates how and when an officer can use force and deadly force. The department plans to institute the policy July 1. Every department member will undergo 51/2 hours of training -- at a cost of about $600,000 to be paid using the department's asset-forfeiture funds -- before the new policy is officially instituted.

Acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said in an interview that the review board was a "game changer" for the department, which he said had not updated its use-of-force policy in about two decades.

The review board and new policy "sets a tone that the members of this organization take the use of force and deadly force seriously," he said. "Now we're focusing on that as the very core."

The new guidelines and review board come as the department has struggled with controversial shooting cases, including that involving former Nassau Police Officer Anthony DiLeonardo, who was fired two weeks ago more than three years after he shot a retreating, unarmed cabdriver in Huntington Station while off duty and not in uniform following a night of drinking with another cop.

In addition, a uniformed officer fatally shot Andrea Rebello, a 21-year-old Hofstra University junior, who was being held hostage at gunpoint by a man during a home invasion last May. The Nassau district attorney's office report last month said the cop was justified in using deadly force.

"I think it is long overdue," Krumpter said. "We used to have rules, now we have a full-blown policy. It is the rewriting of our use-of-force policies from the ground up. It's about giving police officers a framework to work within so there's no confusion."

James Carver, president of the Police Benevolent Association, the department's largest union, said the new policy "is in line with what's been practiced by our members anyways."

The review board -- which the department says will be made up of the chief of department, chief of detectives, chief of patrol, counsel to the commissioner and an additional person to be named by the chief -- is unnecessary, Carver said, because the department's homicide squad and the Nassau district attorney already investigate all police shootings.

"Every shooting has always been closely reviewed and sent over to the district attorney's office," Carver said. "To me, the need to change things was not necessary."

 

'Late to the table'

Eugene O'Donnell, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor and a former NYPD officer and prosecutor, said Nassau's policy revamp and review board is "shockingly late to the table," citing other large police departments that have had similar systems for decades.

"In a police agency, the word does get out: This is a new day here, this is serious business," O'Donnell said. "It's actually shocking to me that, in 2014, they're starting this up now. This is one of the nation's largest police departments. It's pretty standard for a big department to have that."

In addition to the review board, Nassau has made other changes to its use-of-force policy:

The department's 48-hour rule, which required the commissioner be notified within 48 hours of an officer's use of deadly force, has been modified to require the commissioner be notified immediately -- within 15 minutes of an incident. In addition, the commissioner now must be briefed in detail by the chief of department and homicide commander within 24 hours. Now, the initial account of the incident must be given to the commissioner before the end of the next business day.

The department has created a lengthy and detailed Deadly Force Response Team Investigation report. The current report is not as detailed.

The results of each use of force and deadly force investigation will be compiled into annual reports and used to evaluate procedure and training. Statistical details on each incident will be public, the commissioner said. The police department does not currently track the outcome of its deadly force investigations.

The department's Deadly Force Response Team will include more top police officials. Under the new plan, the Internal Affairs Unit now can also join the investigation if requested. Currently, the full response team consists of a duty chief, an administrative officer, a commanding officer of the police academy and a homicide squad supervisor.

In November, a Newsday examination said that since 2006, Nassau's deadly force investigators have never found that their officers were wrong when they felt the need to seriously injure or kill someone.

About 50 members of the department's command staff weighed in on the new policy, which was formulated over an eight-month period and was guided by state law and similar policies at police departments across the country. The previous policy was a few paragraphs; the new policy spans some 60 pages.

 

Litigation, trends cited

No single incident prompted the change, Krumpter said. Instead it was due to examinations of many police shootings, "litigation we face" and national trends. In fact, Rebello's family filed a wrongful-death suit against the county and its police force on Friday.

"We are constantly reviewing policy," Krumpter said. "We thought it was time to reinvent the use-of-force policy . . . We had a lot of policy. We had a lot of procedure. But it was buried in various places. In order for us to defend ourselves, we have to align ourselves with good policy."

O'Donnell said the changes have the potential to "create a culture shift" in the department, but the system can be fraught with politics.

"I don't think it's a panacea," O'Donnell said. "I don't think it's going to solve all the issues. But it's absolutely necessary . . . It's part of their job to use deadly force, but when a cop does it, the brass often finds themselves having a jumble of emotions about it."

The Suffolk Police Department, which does not have a review board, charges its Homicide Section with investigating all incidents involving the discharge of a firearm by any officer that results in any physical injury or death, said police spokesman Kevin Fallon.

If a member of the police department discharges his firearm during a "confrontational situation," in which no injuries occur, it will be investigated by the department's Internal Affairs Bureau, Fallon said. The Suffolk district attorney's office reviews all police-involved shootings.

The NYPD has a review board. After an initial shooting team investigation, the Firearms Discharge Advisory Panel determines if officers acted within the department firearms guidelines or use-of-force policy.

Then the Chief of Department's Firearms Discharge Review Board looks at the tactics used in the incident, the appropriateness of the officers' actions and the disciplinary action to be taken. A one-page report is then prepared for the police commissioner, who makes a final determination about the incident.

Suffolk County did not want to discuss its deadly force policy and instead asked Newsday to apply for the information via a Freedom of Information Law request.

Maki Haberfeld, chairwoman of John Jay's department of law and police science, who has written books about use of force, said other departments in the United States have boards and that Nassau's new policy is "one of the most extensive and detailed manuals that I've seen."

"No matter how many rules and procedures you put in a place, when a police officer is authorized to use deadly force, it's very subjective," she said. "No matter how many guiding principles you're going to put out there, the way you perceive things and the way I perceive things can be very different. Real life and real situations are very unpredictable."

Carver said he is concerned about the potential for outside influence on the board. "It's my worry and the worry of every single police officer who works the street that this board will feel a responsibility to find some wrongdoing to justify their existence."

Carver said union bosses will speak out "if we feel that they're wrong and are making a political judgment instead of the right, just judgment."

Krumpter said he is convinced of the board's ability to impartially consider each incident. "These people have been in the department for a long time," he said. "If there's a personal relationship, they would do the right thing and recuse themselves. . . .

"I'm extremely confident that would not be an issue. These are senior executives that make tough decisions every day."

With Anthony M. DeStefano

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