Nassau police are releasing accused shoplifters after their arrests at two of the region's largest shopping centers instead of driving them in handcuffs to precincts in a new initiative designed to streamline arrest processing -- and cut the department's overtime costs.

The pilot program, which is in place only at the Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City and Green Acres mall in Valley Stream, could eventually usher in arrest policy changes countywide for other misdemeanor crimes -- including marijuana possession, said acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter.

"It's our primary objective to maximize the time that cops have on patrol," said Krumpter in an interview. "I expect it to get the cops to complete arrests more quickly. . . . My cops can go out and arrest more people that are doing things or they can prevent crime, because they don't prevent crime when they're processing arrests at a precinct."

DataLI crime stats

Officers in the Third and Fifth precincts began making so-called "field arrests" for charges of petty larceny -- a misdemeanor theft of less than $1,000 in property -- beginning in late April at Roosevelt Field and in mid-May at Green Acres, according to a pair of department notifications obtained by Newsday.

Under the expedited process -- applicable to only those suspected shoplifters who meet criteria such as having proper identification, like a New York State driver's license, and no active arrest warrants -- officers detain the suspect at the scene of the alleged crime, and process the arrest paperwork.

The suspects are given a field appearance ticket and required to go to a police precinct between 10 days after the arrest and 20 days before their court appearance, to be fingerprinted and photographed for a mug shot.

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Normally, officers would transport the alleged shoplifter to a precinct, where they'd remain in custody for several hours -- during which time they'd be photographed and fingerprinted -- before they could potentially be released on a desk appearance ticket.

Policy called a safety risk

Police Benevolent Association president James Carver said the new policy puts at risk the safety of police officers and the public, by requiring officers to process suspected shoplifters in a public place -- a busy shopping mall -- rather than a secure police facility.

In addition, an alleged shoplifter being hauled out of a store handcuffed and put in the back of a police car is a deterrent to other would-be thieves, he said.

"Listen, I don't want to go the way of New York City and turn this into decriminalizing certain crimes," Carver said. "I think it's a step in that direction. Nassau County was always known as -- you commit a crime, and you will go through the system. But this is like -- we'll just give you a ticket. You're basically walking away right then and there after you committed a crime. It gives the appearance that we're not taking it seriously."

Krumpter said it's "disingenuous" to suggest criminals won't be deterred from committing crimes because suspected shoplifters are still being arrested.

"So we should have police officers hold you for eight hours just to needlessly do paperwork? What does that say? That says I'm taking a cop off patrol, two cops off patrol for four hours each, to process a petit larceny instead of them being back in the mall and being visible," Krumpter said. "What is the greater deterrent?"

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Krumpter said a benefit of the move will be to reduce overtime.

The speedier arrest processing times for petty larcenies -- which have been reduced from about eight hours to about two hours since the program began -- "will reduce overtime . . . on cases that are towards the end of the tour," the acting commissioner said.

Vow to cut overtime

Krumpter has vowed to reduce the department's persistently high overtime costs. Nassau police overtime spending rose last year to $67.8 million from $67.3 million in 2013, although the actual number of overtime hours decreased by 5 percent. Police overtime cost the county $49.9 million in 2012, according to department figures.

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Nassau's overtime costs have been attributed to staffing needs after a wave of officers retired in recent years and were not immediately replaced as the county negotiated new labor contracts after a three-year wage freeze. The labor deal went into effect in May 2014 and pays higher salaries to veteran officers, but new officers are on a lower pay scale that takes more time to reach top salary.

"Overtime is a concern of the department," Krumpter said. "As much as everyone would like to ignore the fact -- four years ago we didn't have overtime much higher than $50-something million, now we're $67 million. That's a concern, and you know what, I have a responsibility to manage the budget and I have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the public and our police officers."

Brian Hoesl, president of Nassau police's Superior Officers Association, which represents the department's approximately 325 supervisors -- who are called to the scene of the field arrests to approve the paperwork -- called the pilot program "a rush process to cut back on overtime."

Three years ago, Hoesl said, the department had 400 supervisors, who can be instrumental in keeping overtime under control.

"I don't think it's prudent," said Hoesl, who said it's better to process suspects at precincts where "you can ensure the people are who they're telling you they are."

Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said Nassau's pilot program puts officers at a "disadvantage" because the quick processing prevents officers from completing thorough warrant checks.

"I can guarantee you, this isn't going to save them any money in the long run," Giacalone said. "You're going to cause a whole bunch of bench warrants. . . . We used to refer to them as disappearance tickets -- as soon as you give them the ticket, you're never going see them again. You're going to save overtime on the front end, but you're going to have to spend overtime for cops to go hunt these people down on the back end."

No timeline for program

In the first two weeks of the program at Roosevelt Field, of the 28 arrests for petty larceny, only eight were processed in the new way, Krumpter said. There is no timeline for the pilot program, Krumpter said.

The program could be expanded to the entire county and to other misdemeanors such as trespassing or marijuana possession.

"We're looking at streamlining all arrests," Krumpter said. "Minor offenses where people are eligible for appearance tickets are things we'd be looking at. . . . You have a marijuana cigarette in your pocket, a very small amount. This is nothing to do with arresting or not arresting people. We are still taking the exact same action against people. The only difference is what your paperwork looks like."

The Suffolk County Police Department has been issuing field arrest appearance tickets for decades for petty larcenies and some other misdemeanors, including at the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove and the Westfield South Shore mall in Bay Shore, said Sgt. Colleen Cooney, a department spokeswoman. Eligibility for a field arrest in Suffolk mirrors Nassau's pilot program, including the suspect having proper identification and not being impaired.

"I was kind of shocked that they hadn't been doing it," Cooney said, referring to Nassau. "Because we've been doing it so long. . . . In our experience, all the stores that we deal with, they're very familiar with the process and they certainly don't object to it."

The NYPD does not process petty larcenies or other misdemeanors in the field; officers are required to transport suspected shoplifters to a precinct and take their mug shots and fingerprints, and run their names through various warrant and other databases before releasing them, a spokeswoman said.

Union: Bar on substations

Nassau officers have been told they're not allowed to use the police substations inside the Roosevelt Field and Green Acres malls, where there are suspect holding areas, because it could add minutes to the arrest processing, Carver said.

"I understand that the commissioner is under a mandate to try to curtail overtime as much as possible, but if it affects the safety of the officers or the safety of the public, it should be done with caution," said Carver, who added that officers are concerned about possible department disciplinary action if they don't execute the pilot program in all cases. "They're being told to do it right in whatever store you're in -- a backroom here, a stockroom, not a secured area. If a guy starts to bolt, then you're chasing a guy around the store."

Krumpter disputed Carver's assertion, saying officers have "discretion" to take the suspects to a substation or precinct.

Krumpter said officers working on the pilot program have been "intimately involved" in planning and "their input has resulted in changes."

Carver contends neither he, nor any other police officers, were consulted.

Simon Property Group, which owns Roosevelt Field, said in a statement that its management team at the mall "is not involved in any decisions made by the Nassau County Police Department." The Indiana-based company said it enjoys a "strong working relationship" with the department and "respect[s] the policies they implement to help us protect our shoppers, retail tenants and employees, which is our number one priority."

Macerich, the owner of Green Acres, did not respond to a message seeking comment.

On a recent afternoon at Roosevelt Field, worker Chetan Sai manned a cellphone case kiosk called Street Talk IV on the first floor of the mall. Shoplifting isn't a big problem at the kiosk, he said, because mall security has a strong presence at the store, but he thinks shoplifters should be handcuffed and brought to jail.

"That's a bad idea," Sai, 23, of Hicksville, said of the new procedure for shoplifters. "The thief will be like, 'I'm just getting a ticket, that's OK for me.' "