The fight to dole out tougher discipline and increase accountability in the Nassau police ranks will be one of the biggest challenges facing whoever succeeds ousted Commissioner Thomas Dale, law enforcement sources say.

Taking the reins in 2012 in the wake of several police scandals, Dale promised to reassert the authority of the commissioner and other top officials to discipline rogue cops.

County legislators in May 2012 broadened his authority to impose discipline by firing bad employees, rather than have police trials -- internal hearings to determine what happens to cops who break the rules -- go to a mediator.

But Dale's efforts at reform faced significant resistance from the Police Benevolent Association, which launched a legal challenge to the commissioner's expanded powers.

When Dale resigned suddenly Thursday over his role in the arrest of a witness in a politically charged case, the powers granted him by lawmakers had remained largely unused, the sources said.

"Dale was brought in to clean things up and get tough on cops who crossed certain lines," said one police official. "But with the way he went out, whatever movement there was toward reform looks like it might be dead. He wasn't around long enough to impact the culture."

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Early in his 23-month tenure, Dale said he believed Nassau's police unions had too much influence on how the department handled disciplinary actions. With the support of County Executive Edward Mangano and lawmakers, he fought for the right to fire cops accused of serious wrongdoing. Under previous commissioners, employees accused of misconduct usually managed to keep their jobs.

"Dale worked under a lot of pressure. He took a lot on, and he took on a lot of people," Mangano said Friday. "He may be gone, but the effort to instill discipline will continue."

Mangano called Dale a "disciplinarian" and promised that "the next commissioner will be a disciplinarian, too."

In its legal challenge filed in September 2012, the PBA claims the legislature's action to broaden Dale's authority was a violation of its contract, which requires disciplinary disputes to be settled by an independent arbitrator.

So far, three judges in a row have recused themselves from the case. It has recently been assigned to a fourth judge, state Supreme Court Justice Anthony Parga.

The police official said Dale's authority was expected to face a crucial test in the case of Officer Anthony DiLeonardo, who internal affairs investigators found had shot and beat an unarmed taxi driver without justification in Huntington Station in 2011.

Dale had expressed his desire to fire DiLeonardo, the official said. But nearly three years after the shooting, the officer remains on the force. He was paid $110,316 in 2012, the year after the shooting, after making just over $118,000 in each of the previous two years, records show.

Dale "was in a power struggle [with the PBA] and he lost," the official said.

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Dale did not return calls seeking comment.

Hempstead attorney Frederick Brewington said prospects for increased accountability and discipline within the department's rank-and-file are dim. He successfully sued the county for more than $7 million on grounds that police failed to protect Jo'Anna Bird, who was killed by an ex-boyfriend in 2009.

Nassau County and Bird's family issued a joint statement after the settlement citing a "breakdown in the system." An internal investigation found that officers failed to investigate domestic violence calls by Bird before she was killed.

"Until the department comes clean on issues that plague it within, there's never going to be real systematic change," Brewington said of the police department. "There's no civilian complaint review board, and there's no outside entity making sure people are held accountable. I hope the next permanent commissioner is someone who is not afraid of accountability."

Mangano lured Dale, an Oyster Bay Town resident and protege of outgoing New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, away from his job as NYPD chief of personnel. One of only eight three-star chiefs in the NYPD at the time, the Brooklyn-born Dale joined the NYPD in 1970 as a plainclothes officer and served in the patrol and detective divisions, organized-crime control and on the terrorist task force.

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From 2003 to 2010, he commanded Patrol Borough Queens South, supervising eight precincts during a time when major crime declined 17 percent. He also developed the security plan for the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City and orchestrated initial patrol operations on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was one of the first senior law enforcement officials on the scene.

In Nassau, Dale faced an uphill climb when it came to wielding more power in police disciplinary matters.

After the legislature's vote granting Dale additional authority, he said he had the power to discipline department employees rather than have police trials go to a mediator.

But James Carver, who heads the PBA, said then that if Dale tried to put an officer on "trial" within the department, the union would immediately seek a temporary restraining order.

For several years, such trials have been decided by independent mediators, and Carver battled Dale to ensure that is how things would stay, the police official said.

"This whole matter remained unsettled as of the day Dale quit," the source said.

Carver said Friday his union had its differences with Dale, but "I don't see his resignation as a victory for us. Anything that puts a blemish on the department isn't a victory."

Nassau Legis. Dave Denenberg (D-Merrick) has called for hearings into several police department issues, including employee discipline.

"In light of the high-profile disciplinary matters of the last two years, it certainly seems appropriate that the Legislature conduct a hearing . . . as to the disciplinary process, findings and whether the legislative changes pushed by the administration and Commissioner Dale resulted in benefits to the county, the department and/or otherwise," Denenberg wrote in a Dec. 9 letter to Republican legislative leaders.

Several current and former employees of the police department -- speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the press -- said the resistance Dale faced from the PBA and others left him unable to implement wide-ranging changes.

"He couldn't change the culture of the department because a lot of people didn't want the culture to change," said a second police source. "Ultimately, he was sucked in by that culture, which led to his downfall."

Carver said the PBA merely wants fair treatment from the next police commissioner.

"This isn't about saying no one should be disciplined at all," Carver said. "It's about fairness and the punishment fitting the crime. That's all we're asking for."

With Robert Brodsky

and Joye Brown