Survey: What LI politicians say about police misconduct

Community activist group, the Corridor Counts Coalition, and attorney Frederick Brewington held a news conference to address the recent abuses of authority and power by Nassau County. Videojournalist: Chris Ware (Dec. 19, 2013)

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and 17 other state and local elected officials called for increased oversight of law enforcement in response to a Newsday survey on police misconduct.

A majority of the 33 officials who responded to the survey last week supported more oversight. Rice and other legislators also supported creating civilian review boards and legislative hearings on police misconduct.

More than half of the 82 officials surveyed either chose not to comment or declined to participate, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.

Newsday released the survey results Thursday with the newspaper's investigation into officer misconduct and 50-a, the police privacy law that allows agencies to shield misconduct investigations from the public. Newsday's story found that dozens of officers had unlawfully shot people, falsified police reports, lied to investigators or committed other serious acts of misconduct yet kept their jobs or were allowed to retire.

Such misconduct is dealt with more harshly in other states, where officers can lose their license or face state-level investigations. Other states make internal affairs investigations public, while New York agencies use 50-a to keep records hidden.

State officials were asked if they support repealing 50-a and also if New York should license police officers.

Only one state legislator, Assemb. Michaƫlle Solages (D-Elmont), called for the state to license its officers. Solages was joined by Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) in calling for the repeal of 50-a. Four state legislators opposed repealing the law, including Assemb. Michael Montesano of Glen Head, who was the only member of the GOP to call for increased oversight.

Montesano worked as a police officer and detective for the New York Police Department for a decade. He said the 50-a law has been misapplied and should be amended to authorize the release of misconduct investigations.

"The position of a police officer or any law enforcement officer for that matter is very important," Montesano wrote in response to the survey. "They need to be accountable for improper or unlawful conduct."

 

Carver backs the systemThe president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association Thursday defended the state's 50-a law, saying it prevents unfair public scrutiny of officers.

"Is there misconduct from time to time? Yes, any organization is going to have that," James Carver said at a news conference in Mineola. He said 50-a "stops the nonsense" if prosecutors or others try to "discredit a police officer."

Carver said the current discipline process within the police department works and dismissed calls for outside investigations and a civilian review board. He said the Nassau County district attorney's office already provides oversight.

However, Rice said more oversight is needed.

"She's looking forward to working with the criminal justice community and other stakeholders on how more accountability can improve public safety, department morale and the public's faith in law enforcement," Rice spokesman Shams Tarek said in an email.

 

Reasons some declinedNewsday's survey allowed officials to decline answering questions but provide an explanation that would appear on newsday.com. Twelve took that option, all of them Suffolk legislators who said they couldn't comment due to "pending litigation." Among them were six of the seven members of Suffolk's Public Safety Committee.

"I have been advised by the County Attorney that it would be inappropriate for me to comment in more detail to your survey at this time," said Legis. Kate M. Browning (WF-Shirley), chairwoman of the Suffolk Public Safety Committee.

Paul Sabatino, a municipal law expert with 30 years of government experience, including as former counsel to the Suffolk Legislature, said unless individual legislators are being sued or under a gag order, no lawsuit would prevent them from answering the survey.

"I don't know what lawsuit could stop legislators from holding public hearings or conducting their fiduciary duty of overseeing county government," Sabatino said. He added that "elected officials like to get the attorneys to say, 'you can't speak.' "

Newsday's investigation found that neither the Nassau nor Suffolk public safety committees, which can hold hearings and propose legislation, have discussed police misconduct since at least 2007.

Sabatino said taxpayers know law enforcement unions help win elections and get favorable contracts for their members, but are less aware of the union chipping away at oversight by local leaders.

Incoming legislator William J. Lindsay III (D-Bohemia) was the only Suffolk lawmaker to call for increased oversight. He also supported hearings on the issue, along with Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) and incoming legislator Kevin J. McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst).

Cilmi wrote that he opposed increased oversight and civilian review boards because there are already several layers of law enforcement oversight.

"Creating additional levels of bureaucracy to cover for the failures of existing bureaucracy is not the answer," Cilmi wrote.

 

Public hearings suggestedTen incumbent or incoming Nassau legislators called for public hearings, including public safety committee member Wayne Wink Jr. (D-Roslyn).

"Legislative oversight regarding this or nearly every other issue in Nassau County has been non-existent for the past 4 years," Wink wrote. "Less than a handful of oversight hearings have been conducted by all 12 committees combined."

Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick) also supported hearings in his survey response. After Newsday interviewed Denenberg about the public safety committee's inaction, he sent a letter Dec. 9 to several Nassau committee chairs calling for hearings on several issues, including police disciplinary procedures.

No Republican in the Nassau Legislature responded to the survey. Nassau Presiding Officer Norma L. Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) wrote in a statement that the questions "are too complex to be reduced to 'yes' or 'no' . . . while still doing any justice to the topics at hand."

Civil rights attorney Frederick K. Brewington on Thursday called for Mangano and the county legislature to hold hearings on police misconduct and create a civilian review board in response to Newsday's investigation.

"Every person in Nassau County needs to stand up and say, 'What the heck is going on in my government?' " Brewington said during the news conference.

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