Editorial: Why Nassau needs a new police commissioner

Nassau County Executives Ed Mangano is shown giving Nassau County Executives Ed Mangano is shown giving his State of the County address at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury. (Jan. 10, 2014) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Nassau County residents like their police protection, and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano likes happy residents. These residents, though, also hate tax hikes, and Mangano won his job by promising not to raise property taxes, and kept it by delivering on that promise. Mangano and acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter are having a tougher time delivering all the police protection residents want, with the bills paid and the taxes stable.

Mangano is a politician. Krumpter is a numbers cruncher and administrator. What the department needs is a permanent commissioner, a leader who can devise, impose and defend a policing plan without becoming a weather vane for public opinion, as Mangano has of late.

Superstorm Sandy, a wave of retirements and a police contract that restricts flexibility drastically increased overtime expenses through years of disappointing county revenue. Between 2009 and 2013, overtime for the department increased 74 percent, and it cost $63 million last year.

Starting in 2011, a wage freeze on all of the county's union employees helped offset these expenses, saving about $230 million. Now the freeze has been lifted, expenses are increasing, and Mangano and Krumpter are having a tough time simultaneously managing costs, public opinion and crime fighting.

A Newsday story on May 22 showed arrests for driving while intoxicated had declined steadily -- from an average of 2,641 per year from 2009 to 2011 to 1,545 last year -- since Nassau police eliminated a team focused on drunken driving. The argument from county officials that arrests might have fallen because drunken driving itself declined seemed unlikely: Deaths from DWI and DWI crashes dropped only a tiny bit over that span.

The story created a stir. The next day, Mangano and Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice responded by re-establishing the DWI enforcement team the department shuttered in 2011. The expense will be covered by the department's $4-million asset forfeiture fund, money seized in criminal investigations that by law can be used to augment policing, but not to replace funding of current operations.

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That means those funds can't be used to keep 45 officers on plainclothes duty, as Democrats in the county legislature are demanding. The department said last week these cops, including 12 officers from the Gang Abatement Program, would move to uniformed patrol to save $4.4 million in overtime. That also raised a public alarm that only got worse last weekend after Robert Brown, 16, was shot and killed in Hempstead Village, a death police say may be gang related.

Nassau County, long one of the safest places in the nation, has seen crime drop by more than 10 percent since 2011. There is no crime crisis.

But the department has a labor contract that forces police to use too many resources in largely crime-free areas and leave too few for the hot spots that need attention. Managing that with a depleted head count will cost a fortune this year while the department trains recruits. Lifting the wage freeze recently without creating enough revenue to cover these costs is creating a cash crunch for Nassau County.

Now, Mangano has to manage through that crunch. He needs to do what he promised and hire a commissioner from outside the department who can implement a policing plan the county can afford, and take the heat from the residents it angers.

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