Editorial: Reforms can help end toxic police culture
There are serious problems in Long Island's county police departments.
There are problems with the departments' cultures, and a general sense that officers are above both the law and departmental rules.
There are problems with the state law that bars the public from learning of police misbehavior.
There are problems with oversight of policing that often seems to be too much about politics and relationships, and too little about justice and safety.
And there are problems caused by the outsized power of the police unions. They've negotiated contracts that go far beyond economic issues and now impede discipline and accountability.
How many officers go over the line, and how far? How are they punished, if at all, when they do commit errors of judgment or even crimes?
The public doesn't really know.
The vast majority of officers in the Nassau and Suffolk county police departments are dedicated and devoted to public safety and departmental honor. They, too, should demand that the departments clean up their acts.
There is one case that tells it all. Nassau Officer Anthony DiLeonardo was found in a department internal affairs investigation to have beaten and shot a cabdriver in Huntington in 2011 without justification, while off-duty and drunk. Suffolk officers and the Suffolk County district attorney's office handled the case, but the Nassau department's Deadly Force Response Team and internal affairs unit also had investigative roles.
Investigators for the Suffolk district attorney helped contradict DiLeonardo's story that the cabbie tried to run him down. But they never charged DiLeonardo with a crime, and what we know about the case -- including details in a Nassau police internal affairs report -- came from civil litigation against the department by the victims.
Nassau's Deadly Force Response Team ruled that DiLeonardo was both justified in his actions and "fit for duty," even though the internal affairs report revealed he was drunk. While the internal affairs investigators failed to interview the top supervisors who responded to the scene or were consulted that night -- so we don't know everyone involved in the cover-up -- the report was damning enough. Still, DiLeonardo remains a cop, as does his partner, who was drinking with him and lied to protect him, according to that report. The facts were so outrageous that a Suffolk grand jury investigation was opened, but only after Newsday published the internal affairs report. Thus far, no results.
Two counties. Multiple investigations. No justice.
There have been other high-profile cases: Nassau County paid $7.7 million to settle a lawsuit alleging culpability in the 2010 killing of Jo'Anna Bird by her ex-boyfriend, a confidential police informant, but the public has never learned whether officers were disciplined in the case. A Nassau officer who aimed a loaded gun at a Farmingdale bar manager while off-duty and drunk in 2011 received no jail time after pleading guilty to second-degree menacing, and remains on the force.
Higher up, Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale was forced to resign this month after the Nassau County district attorney documented his outrageous involvement in a civil case that could have influenced November's Nassau County executive race and, in turn, whether Dale stayed on the job. And Suffolk County Chief of Department James Burke, who has a reputation as an officer who doesn't follow rules, came under fire after a man who allegedly broke into Burke's car and took a duffel bag said Burke later assaulted him. Other officers testified in the defendant's pretrial hearings that Burke defied protocol and went into the interrogation room where the man was being held.
As problematic as these cases are, at least we know about them. Recent Newsday investigations and news stories have revealed that more than 200 officers in both counties have been involved in misconduct, often serious, and that those officers have often faced no significant discipline.
These cases are secret because of a state law, known as 50-a, that bars making public any information about police officers that could be used in evaluating their performance. That law gives police unions tremendous power to protect their members. So officers often are not disciplined, or lightly punished, because the culture of departments frowns on efforts to get rid of the bad actors.
Changes are long overdue:
Transparency and 50-a: The State Legislature, where powerful members have received large campaign contributions from police unions, must amend the law that shields police misconduct. The public doesn't need to know every time a cop is late or makes a minor error in judgment, but it does have the right to know when an officer commits a significant transgression, and what discipline comes of it.
Civilian review boards: Residents need a forum to air grievances about police treatment. These are not cure-alls, but they often have helped to create a culture of accountability to the public.
Leadership: The top officers in both Suffolk and Nassau must operate free of partisan politics and favoritism. Both county executives must make this demand of their commissioners and top appointees and then insulate those police officials from inappropriate pressure. For too long, cops have worked to protect each other from serious consequences, operating with the sense that anyone working behind a badge is above the law. There is no magic way to change it, but these improvements would be a great start.
New York is one of only six states that does not require officers to be licensed. The great value of licensing is that state boards, operating outside the fraternal pressures of a department, can pull an officer's authorization to work as a cop when a serious infraction is committed. Is that necessary here? It's up to our departments to prove it's not.
When bad cops are protected from consequences, and the facts are kept from the public, it's the good cops, and the public, who suffer.