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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

New reason to release Jo'Anna Bird murder report

Jo'Anna Bird, seen here with her children, was

Jo'Anna Bird, seen here with her children, was found stabbed to death in her New Cassel home on March 19, 2009, police said. Credit: Handout

The Nassau County Police Department early on acknowledged the failure to investigate domestic violence complaints involving Jo'Anna Bird, a mother of two from New Cassel who was killed by her abusive estranged boyfriend.

But the department's bungling is worse than we knew. Last week, as the county and a state financial control board approved a $7.7 million settlement with Bird's family, troubling new assertions about the case began to emerge.

More officers -- double the seven previously reported by the department -- were investigated, Thomas Dale, NCPD's new acting commissioner, said in an interview. The officers, because of an administrative regulation in the county code, were able to go to binding arbitration to determine their punishment.

Peter Schmitt, the legislature's presiding officer, said that Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, who is serving a life prison term for fatally stabbing Bird, was given a cellphone by police while in jail. He used it to call Bird 35 to 40 times.

Schmitt had to wage a legal fight and sign a confidentiality agreement to review the 700-page police internal affairs report on the Bird case. Ceding to the county's request, a judge barred the report from public release.

It is outrageous that the public would have to learn in dribs and drabs information from a report the county should have released long ago.

"I am totally disgusted with what I found out in the report," said Schmitt (R-Massapequa). "It reminded me of some of the old movies we used to see about departments down in the South."

Dale read the report before agreeing to take the commissioner's job. "It's a black eye on the face of this department," he said, adding that the NCPD has retrained officers on how to handle domestic abuse cases.

"Please make clear that if anybody needs help in domestic cases, they should feel confident stepping forward," Dale said. "I give you my word . . . ."

In an interview, Dale said 10 of the 14 officers involved in the case were disciplined. Four more are awaiting arbitration decisions that will determine their punishments.

"Why weren't these people fired?" Dale said he asked. "I personally think these disciplines were too light."

A provision in county law effectively neuters the department's ability to mete out significant discipline. Under the provision, Dale said, officers facing more than 10 days' discipline have the option of binding arbitration. "I want to get that changed," he said.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano's office supports amending the administrative code. "The county executive . . . has asked the county attorney to prepare the necessary legislation," said spokesman Brian Nevin.

But James Carver, head of Nassau's Police Benevolent Association, said the county and the union negotiated the binding arbitration clause in 2007, when Mangano was a member of the legislature that unanimously approved it. "They can't do it," he said.

Bird died in 2009. Her family filed suit, alleging that police failed to protect her. Last year, county lawmakers refused to approve the Bird settlement without first seeing the secret report. They went to court and won the right to read it, on the condition that they not divulge its contents.

The Bird case isn't just about Bird. It's about how police failed to protect the public -- and about whether residents can trust the department now.

In an interview on Wednesday, Schmitt chose his words carefully because he had signed a confidentiality agreement before reading the report: "This was a breakdown that goes from the top to the bottom," he said.

But on Monday, after approving the Bird settlement, Schmitt told News 12 Long Island specifics of what he had seen in the report, including the cellphone calls from jail.

Schmitt also told News 12 that police ignored orders of protection and did not make arrests when arrests should have been mandatory. "There was nobody there who had either the honor, the training or the integrity to say, hey, this is wrong," he said later in an interview.

Frederick Brewington, the Bird family lawyer, said he might use Schmitt's televised comments to argue that the report be made public. "We're carefully evaluating our options," Brewington said.

It's Dale's job now to revamp the department after the Bird case and the county police lab scandal.

But during his upcoming confirmation hearing, lawmakers can't publicly address any specific concerns arising from what they read in the report.

That makes no sense.


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