Politics and dire predictions aside, there is no way to fix the deficit-ridden Nassau County budget that doesn't involve spending less on its police department. The cops are slated to consume about $700 million of the county's estimated $3 billion in spending in 2012.
The shortfall in the county's annual budget was originally projected at more than $300 million, and the state board overseeing Nassau's finances is demanding that County Executive Edward Mangano eliminate at least half of the deficit. Since raising taxes in the most highly taxed county in the nation won't fly -- at least not in this economy -- the money has to come from spending cuts.
Either the extremely well-paid police have to earn less or there need to be fewer of them. So Mangano announced a plan this week to save $20 million annually by cutting positions.
He wants to reduce the county's precincts from eight to four, but run the four that are no longer precincts as community policing centers. Mangano says this would eliminate 108 positions without reducing the number of street patrols, or police presence in the community. The move would cut 95 sworn officer positions and 13 civilian ones, reducing the roll call of the department to just under 2,300 people.
Under the new plan, the Fifth Precinct in Elmont, the Sixth Precinct in Manhasset and the Eighth Precinct in Levittown, as well as a location to replace the deteriorating First Precinct in Baldwin, would become police outposts, each staffed by two officers around the clock. These locations would provide all the services residents go to precincts for, like filing police reports and getting copies of accident reports. But these community centers would no longer book or house prisoners, or handle administrative functions.
Policing has changed tremendously in the four decades since the county's current system, with its eight precincts, was mapped out. In a sense, computers have made each squad car a moving command center, and cops rarely even go to the precinct to switch shifts. Instead they meet up with the next officers to trade off within the zones they patrol.
It's questionable whether the Nassau police even need eight locations. It's certain they don't need that many full precincts. Turning four into community policing centers is at least a bit political, meant to appease residents, but it also reflects the fact that the department can't quickly dispose of these hulking buildings and plots of land. If they turn out not to be well utilized, or if their functions can be performed in smaller, cheaper locations, the county should unload them.
This plan is designed to get around union contracts that call for staffing minimums by precinct. By closing four, the county would gain flexibility, and save. The unions may challenge the move via a grievance; when it was announced, their leaders and some Democratic county legislators hollered that the plan threatens public safety.
It's no longer the 1970s. We have better technology, different needs and tighter budgets. The Nassau police are going to have to cost less. Making that happen without reducing cops on the street is the safest path to take.