Nassau leaders Wednesday celebrated their ranking by U.S. News & World Report as the safest county in the country amid declining major crime figures and increased spending on police and fire protection.
U.S. News awarded Nassau a score of 100 in their "Healthiest Communities" rankings based on three categories. They include a violent crime rate of 133.8 per 100,000 residents, compared to a national average of 231; per capita spending annually on public safety of $1,148 compared to a national average of $359 and having 1.26% of its population working in law enforcement compared to 0.70% nationally.
"No one in the country scored better than Nassau," County Executive Laura Curran said at a news conference outside the Nassau Police Academy in Massapequa Park. The county will open a new training facility in April on the grounds of Nassau Community College.
But the publication's annual rankings for 2019, released last week, frustrated Suffolk officials based on what appears to be an inflated or incorrect violent crime rate that would make it the most unsafe community in the nation, behind even Chicago and the Bronx.
Suffolk officials disputed the violent crime number while U.S. News said the figure was based on a model that projects crime rates for the county after just over half of all county police precincts reported data to the FBI — significantly lower than the response rates in Nassau and most other municipalities.
Curran said her $3.2 billion proposed budget for 2021 increases spending on Problem Oriented Policing units, the Police Athletic League and the Mental Health Mobile Crisis Team that assists officers responding to 911 calls involving individuals under mental stress.
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said during the COVID-19 pandemic law enforcement was "not only confronting crime but the virus and trying to keep themselves safe. And while many of us could be home these men and women were out exposing themselves, and ultimately their families, to serious illness and dangers."
Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said major crime has dropped 31% since 2005, including rapes, assaults and robberies. Those numbers declined 7.5% during the first half of 2020 compared to that same point in 2019, while total crimes fell 20%, he said.
But there are some troublesome hot spots. Commercial burglaries spiked sharply during the first half of 2020 because many businesses were shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic and bail reform freed many burglary suspects, Ryder said.
"When the businesses were empty for all that time people preyed on that and took advantage," he said. "And during bail reform we had the repeat offenders who went back out over and over through the revolving door."
Nassau has also seen an uptick in homicides, with 18 thus far in 2020 compared to 16 last year. That figure includes the discovery of human remains in Uniondale Tuesday — the likely victim years earlier of the MS-13 street gang, officials said.
"But go back 10 years, Ryder said of Nassau's murder rate. "We averaged 35 homicides a year. Back in 1989 we had 51."
Suffolk, meanwhile, received a public safety score of 41, anchored largely by a violent crime rate of 2,035.5 per 100,000 residents — nearly 800% higher than the national rate and topping the county seats of high-crime area of St. Louis, Detroit and New Orleans.
Suffolk officials disputed the numbers, arguing that violent crime continues to remain at or near record lows.
"The statistics published by US News and World Report were ascertained from a source other than the Suffolk County Police Department and are inaccurate," said Derek Poppe, spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone. "The department is attempting to work with the publication to correct the error and we anticipate that once it is updated, our ranking will once again accurately list us among the safest communities in the country."
But U.S. News spokeswoman Sarah Javors said the number is accurate based on data provided by law enforcement to the FBI. Javors offered a caveat that could explain the discrepancy, noting that nearly half of all law enforcement units in Suffolk failed to report crime data.
"In the majority of counties, 90% to 100% of precincts report," she said. "In Suffolk County, only about 55% do, and modeled estimates are used to fill in the gap. We'll be looking into the utility of the data source for next year's rankings."