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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

George Floyd's death changed things — on Long Island too

Supporters of police reform gather outside the Dennison

Supporters of police reform gather outside the Dennison building in Hauppauge on March 15. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is looking for a police commissioner.

You can bet the issue of policing and policing reform will play some role in his search and final selection.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran is campaigning for a second term, against Republican candidate Bruce Blakeman, a Hempstead Town Council member and the county legislature's former presiding officer.

You can bet the issue of policing and policing reform will be an issue there too.

Although the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer convicted last week in the murder of George Floyd, is over, changes in policing spurred by Floyd's death will go on.

Just last week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — who had mandated a community-involved review of procedures in every police department in the state — accepted plans submitted earlier this month by both Nassau and Suffolk.

As expected, Bellone and Curran praised their county plans, which include bringing Suffolk and Nassau in line with other large police departments around the nation that use on-body cameras for police officers.

But policing reform advocates say they will press on with other efforts, including creation of inspectors general to ensure independent review of use of force, police discipline and other actions.

Frederick Brewington, a Hempstead civil rights attorney, said policing reform "very much so" will become a campaign issue in Nassau.

"This Nassau plan is clearly nowhere close to being sufficient," he said. "It fails to reform policing in Nassau County, it fails to address police accountability to the public, it fails to address the issues related to race-based arrests and car stops . . . on so many levels it just fails," he said.

A spokesman for Bellone said Friday that the county police department, over the next few weeks, will launch "a nationwide search" to replace outgoing Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart.

Her successor will be the fourth commissioner hired during Bellone's three terms in office — and the first to put Suffolk's reform plan into place.

In Nassau, police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, who has served under both Curran, a Democrat, and her Republican predecessor Edward Mangano, already has put elements of his department's reform plan into place, including restoring Police Athletic League programs in multiple communities.

What else has the year brought?

"The emergence of a new generation of smart, energetic and passionate activists of all ethnicities," said Tracey Edwards, head of Long Island's NAACP, who worked with a task force that helped draft the reform plan in Suffolk, and with a coalition of community leaders who produced an alternative "People's Plan" for both counties.

The research, writing and advocacy for that plan — elements of which, such as those dealing with response to mental health emergencies, ended up in both county plans — produced another change, Edwards said: "A coalition of civil rights, social justice and communities that have come together as one voice."

The community advocates said they expect to be heard during Suffolk's commissioner search and Nassau's political campaigns.

For officers working in Nassau and Suffolk, there has been change, too.

In interviews, several current and former department members said the nature of their jobs has changed.

They said they expect every word, gesture, action and reaction, more than at any other time in their careers, to be under scrutiny — much as they have since the outpouring of anger, and protests across Long Island and the nation, after a video of Floyd's death went viral.

One change in state law makes public the disciplinary records that once were kept secret under state law.

Former and current police officers said they find that unsettling as well. (Newsday has sued Nassau for the release of disciplinary records after the police department's release only of heavily redacted copies.)

"Everything officers do is being judged," said Robert Trotta, a Republican Suffolk County legislator and a former Suffolk police officer.

"Personally, I worry about the pendulum swinging the other way, with officers getting hurt because they hesitated taking necessary action because they worried about getting into trouble," said Trotta, who is facing a primary from candidates backed by Suffolk police unions.

Trotta said he believed that on Long Island, home to a sizable number of local, New York City and other law enforcement officers and their families, support for police will remain strong.

"Officers handling someone resisting arrest is never going to be pretty, but what happened there [in Minneapolis] was a travesty, and no officer I know would say otherwise," he said.

Over the years, both Suffolk and Nassau have paid out millions of dollars to settle police-related cases. And several Newsday investigations over the years have included officials decrying the lack of transparency and weak oversight of police misconduct.

There have been very few criminal investigations, and fewer trials.

In Suffolk, former Police Chief James Burke pleaded guilty and served a term in federal prison for violating the civil rights of a prisoner he admitted to beating.

That investigation led the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District to charge — and a jury to convict — Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and his chief deputy for trying to cover up Burke's crimes.

The Spota trial featured testimony about disciplinary actions against Burke, along with other officers. Many of those actions dated back decades.

It was a peek into what happened in one department, beyond one blue line.

The continuing push for accountability, transparency and reform on Long Island may change that.

Spurred on by national revulsion at George Floyd's death, and the conviction of the former police officer who killed him.

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