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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Time to change Nassau police operations

Recently-retired deputy commander Alan Sharpe, former deputy chief

Recently-retired deputy commander Alan Sharpe, former deputy chief inspector John Hunter and former second deputy commissioner William Flanagan outside the Nassau County district attorney's office in Mineola. (March 1, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Nassau County Legislature is slated to act Monday on the nomination of a new police commissioner and a sweeping plan to consolidate precincts.

That can't be enough given last week's corruption allegations against three former department members. It's potentially the worst stain on the department's reputation. The allegations, if proven, would slay the decades-long notion that high pay makes Nassau's police department incorruptible.

Last week's bombshell was the latest in a series of embarrassments -- from drunken off-duty officers to bungled investigations -- for the force.

A secret internal police report on the case of Jo'Anna Bird, murdered by an ex-boyfriend after the department failed to adequately investigate domestic violence calls, so rattled Legislative Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) that he asked earlier this year for a private meeting with acting Police Commissioner Thomas Dale.

"I could not believe this was the department I thought I knew," Schmitt said at the time. "I needed assurances that Dale would do some reforms."

Build on that action, Mr. Schmitt, by scheduling a legislative hearing to examine police department operations top to bottom.

John Ciampoli, the county attorney, said the department had made significant changes.

"You'd be amazed," he said during a discussion on domestic abuse training for officers in the wake of the Bird case recently. "It is not the same department it was last year."

That's fine. But the legislature needs to focus on what's wrong and what needs fixing.

It's clear that the department's challenges extend beyond the Bird case. For instance, there have been questions about how the department disciplines members and whether that disciplining is effective.

But there are other issues that merit public airing.

Take performance evaluations. A state inspector general's report on the police crime lab scandal said that officers working in the facility could not be evaluated.

Department work rules remain in place because of past county-union agreements and binding arbitration awards. Is that true in all divisions?

What about training? Past commissioners complained the force never could get enough, in part because of additional compensation costs for officers also imposed by union-county agreements and arbitration awards.

What about funding for operations? Is it sufficient given that most of the department's money goes -- as does any organization's -- toward covering compensation costs?

For more than a decade now, the police department -- under Democrat and Republican leadership -- has been forced to trim expenses because of the county's financial crisis.

Why did nagging leaks in the crime lab, for example, end up contaminating evidence? There was never enough money in the squeezed county budget to permanently fix the problems.

Are there other essential needs going unfulfilled?

It's never been easy for residents to get a handle on what goes on in the department, which for decades had a reputation for opaqueness.

The reason? In Nassau, the political party in power dominates everything -- unlike in Suffolk, where public officials seem to do most of their fighting in public and where the legislature has a history of publicly questioning department operations.

As it is, the department is under fire for the county's handling of the precinct reorganization plan. Residents want to know what's going on with public safety and the department.

Hold a hearing. Get out the information. And recommend whatever changes are needed.

It's time.

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