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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Dear protesters, this column is for you

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder earlier this month.

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder earlier this month. Credit: Shelby Knowles

Dear protesters,

Especially those who have been marching in Nassau.

Your civic activism is working.

It is having impact.

How much of that gets translated into public policy remains to be seen.

But again, you are having an impact.

And that's not according to me.

It's according to Patrick Ryder, commissioner of the Nassau County police department.

During a wide-ranging interview last week, at one point, he was asked a simple question:

If not for the protests, would we be talking about some changes in policing?

"You know," Ryder began, "would we be talking about the change in the use of force?"

"Probably not," he said.

"We'd probably still be using the carotid hold," Ryder said.

"Would we be talking about procedural justice?" Ryder went on.

"Probably not," he said, "but we're always talking about implicit bias."

A carotid hold, by the by, is a method of subduing violent suspects during an arrest.

Ryder said the department now has banned the practice. (Both Nassau and Suffolk, county officials said, banned chokeholds years ago.)

As for procedural justice, Ryder said, the department is looking at ways to be more fair, and more impartial in enforcing the law.

Recently, Ryder was among officials who met with a group that included protesters.

And he's been on site for several marches that have been continuing since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

He's impressed, he said, by how young y'all are, and about how y'all come from communities across Nassau.

He's impressed, he said, about how focused, how committed y'all are.

"We are bringing [some of] them to the table," he said.

"But the biggest mistake we make is if we bring them to the table and they just walk away at the end, because they're going to say, it was just another bit of dialogue."

"They don't want to hear that," he said. "They want substance."

And with that, he went on to list other changes protesting has wrought.

"There is substance with the governor's report," he said, referring to an executive order signed earlier this month by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo mandating that municipalities and police departments develop plans to reinvent and modernize local policing. The plans must include a review of use-of-force practices, and are supposed to be submitted for state approval by April 2021 — or municipalities will face losing state funds.

"The substance came in 50-a," Ryder went on, referring to the repeal of a New York statute that allowed police disciplinary records to remain secret. Ryder, though, said he would have preferred a review of 50-a, rather than repeal because he worries about the safety and privacy of his officers.

"The substance came in saying no more chokeholds," along with new policy "on no more carotids," he said.

"On transparency," Ryder continued. "We've got to be more transparent."

OK, so about now y'all are likely wondering about the video that showed Nassau police taking down a protester who had bumped into an officer after the officer stopped abruptly in the road. 

"We make a disorderly arrest and it goes viral throughout the nation," Ryder said. "You only see a piece of that video." But he said internal affairs is investigating.

He said he has not spoken to the officers involved because the investigation is ongoing.

Which means there will — and should be — more information to come about what went down.

Approval of any reform plans in Nassau and Suffolk will be up to the county executive and legislatures in both counties.

That is where politics enter.

Police unions on Long Island are influential, and over the decades politicians in multiple offices have coveted their support.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, both Democrats, have won support, and campaign donations, from police unions.

The offices of both county executives, when asked this week whether those donations influenced their decisions, emphatically said no.

Bellone is term-limited; and Curran, an official said, has not accepted police union donations during her term — because the county has yet to reach agreement on a contract for Nassau's largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association.

Consider body cameras for police. The idea came up, in both counties, years ago. But only officers in alcohol fatality enforcement are outfitted with cameras.

Curran and Bellone both are considering body cameras anew, with Curran saying she will include unions, the district attorney and other officials in the discussion process. 

Ryder said he believed cameras would provide transparency for both the public and police.

But it was protesting — you and the other young people around the nation, and the world, protesting — that once again put body cameras on the agenda.

"They've got a lot of energy," Ryder said, and he's talking about you.

Along with officials from Nassau and Suffolk, Ryder outlined initiatives too numerous to list here, although it will be up to y'all to decide whether each meets muster.

"These kids are making a difference, they are making a difference in their home communities," Ryder said.

"We should listen."

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