Editorial: Discipline against police shouldn't be secret
In the wake of Nassau County police Officer Richard Hefferon's sentencing for aiming a loaded gun at a Farmingdale bar manager's head while drinking off-duty, it's reasonable to ask whether Nassau cops face the standards other people do. The answer, in this and many cases, is that we don't know, and we may never know.
This officer made a serious mistake. Hopefully he can overcome it. Harder to overcome for the department is the sense that there's something wrong with its culture, and with laws that keep taxpayers from knowing what these public servants have done and how they're disciplined for it.
Hefferon, a police officer for 19 years, faced reckless endangerment and menacing charges in the 2011 incident. He pleaded guilty to third-degree menacing and faced up to three months in jail. He was sentenced to 150 hours of community service and a $500 fine, and ordered to stay away from his victim, continue substance abuse therapy and undergo a one-year period of "conditional discharge," in which he must file quarterly reports about his therapy and stay out of trouble. He also cannot carry a gun while off-duty for two years.
That's the punishment he faces from the court, but what about his job? The police department waited for his court case to be adjudicated before starting its own discipline process, which is standard.
Should the officer be fired? Fined? Suspended or demoted? It's hard to say because we don't know all the facts and we'll never know them because how an officer is disciplined, and how that decision is reached, are allowed to be hidden by a state law, 50-a, that badly needs changing.
Hefferon's situation isn't isolated. It's viewed, by an increasingly wary public, in concert with reports that Nassau police have committed some serious offenses and covered for each other afterward, and an awareness that so much is never made public because the law and the culture hide the potential wrongdoings of officers.