Editorial: Long Island police cover-up demands justice
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Police officials and union representatives often say the bad apples are a tiny percentage of any force, and they're right: The majority of cops are good people trying to do a tough job honorably.
But police supporters also argue that good officers want bad ones off the force, because they tarnish the organization. There is little evidence that such is the case in the Nassau and Suffolk county police departments. An exclusive Newsday story published a week ago about an officer who still has his badge after drunkenly shooting another man, then lying about it, shows just how badly awry policing has gone in both counties.
On Feb. 27, 2011, according to a confidential Nassau County police internal affairs report obtained by Newsday, Officer Anthony DiLeonardo, off duty and drunk, shot at cabdriver Thomas Moroughan five times, hitting him twice, then beat the man with the butt of his gun. DiLeonardo had been barhopping in Huntington with his girlfriend, fellow Officer Edward Bienz and Bienz's wife. Moroughan, who was driving a Prius cab with his girlfriend in the passenger seat, had gotten into a roadside verbal dispute with DiLeonardo.
DiLeonardo's explanation for firing at Moroughan, which his companions backed up, was that he feared for his life because the cabbie revved his engine, then tried to run him down. The report debunks that story. A Prius can't be revved audibly, and a reconstruction concluded the car wasn't bearing down on DiLeonardo.
The Nassau police report, which included fact-finding by top homicide detectives in the Suffolk County district attorney's office, concluded DiLeonardo committed 11 unlawful acts, including assault, criminal use of a firearm and driving while impaired, and violated eight departmental regulations. It said Bienz committed two unlawful acts and violated three regulations.
Yet more than two years later, both are still officers and neither has faced significant discipline, although DiLeonardo cannot currently carry a weapon at work. Nor has any action been taken against the Suffolk County police officers that night who allegedly fabricated a confession and got a hospitalized Moroughan -- drugged with morphine and carrying two bullets in his body -- to sign it.The Nassau cops were on Suffolk's turf, but the distinction that night made no difference in the brotherhood of blue.
None of the facts of the evening would be known had a copy of the secret internal affairs report not been found by Newsday in a court file related to Moroughan's $30-million lawsuit against the two police departments, two counties and 18 cops.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this horrifying state of affairs.
Within 12 hours of the shooting, Nassau County's Deadly Force Response Team cleared DiLeonardo of wrongdoing and said he and Bienz had been "fit for duty," not mentioning that they were intoxicated.
The internal affairs investigation by Nassau was not begun for 99 days. In signing the statement by Suffolk officers, the medicated and injured Moroughan waived his rights. He was denied an attorney and charged with second-degree assault and second-degree reckless endangerment.
Both charges were dropped by Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, who took over the investigation from the Suffolk police, four months later. Spota concluded the Nassau officers' version of the story was fabricated. But with Moroughan refusing to testify against the Nassau cops, Spota decided against prosecuting.
Moroughan is luckier than most people who've been assaulted by cops. The prominence and presence at the hospital of his highly regarded godmother, Suffolk Police Department Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, who agrees he was denied an attorney and railroaded into a confession of crimes he did not commit, had to have helped spur a response to his allegations.
What should be done
In Nassau: Based on the conclusions of Spota's and Nassau internal affairs' investigations, the Nassau police Deadly Force Response Team appears to have been remiss in its duties. What disciplinary actions do those cops face? Why are DiLeonardo and Bienz still wearing badges? Police Commissioner Thomas Dale should act swiftly to remove them.
In Suffolk: The Suffolk Police Department's investigation was, at the very least, shameful, and possibly criminal. Spota should seek a court order to obtain the Nassau police internal affairs report to determine whether there is evidence in there he can use against any of the officers involved in both counties.
Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone and Police Commissioner Edward Webber should tell the public what disciplinary action is being taken against their officers involved in the cover-up.
Moroughan and his girlfriend must seriously consider testifying before a Suffolk grand jury. Spota says he has not brought charges against the Nassau cops because the case can't be made without the victim's testimony. After Newsday's story broke and outrage mounted, Spota renewed efforts to get their cooperation in the hope of building a case.
In Albany: New York's police unions are protected by a law known as 50-a, which keeps hidden from the public any record used to judge an officer's performance, including misconduct. Had the 350-page internal affairs report not been left where it could be found, the truth might never have come to light. That law must be changed so that the facts become public when officers have committed crimes.
And the culture of the cops must change. Protecting each other from the truth and its consequences is not noble. It's a dereliction of duty.
Most police officers are good, it's true. But no law, custom or culture ought to protect the ones who aren't.