A bill introduced this week by Nassau Republican lawmakers would seek to rename the Nassau Police Department's Mineola headquarters after the late William J. Willett, a law enforcement pioneer and the county's first Black police commissioner.
If the measure is approved by the full 19-member Legislature in September, the Franklin Avenue police headquarters could become the first government building in Nassau County's 121-year history to be named after a Black person.
At a news conference Thursday outside police headquarters, Nassau Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said Willett was a "dedicated public servant" who left an unmatched legacy, serving the county's residents for nearly five decades.
"He was trailblazer, the pioneer and the role model," Nicolello said. "He is, and was, a natural born leader … He exuded integrity. He was quiet but he was a true leader. He was committed to the residents of this county. He was committed to his brothers and sisters in law enforcement and to this police department."
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, said she supported the designation, calling Willett "a great leader" and a man of "unshakable integrity."
Born in Glen Cove, Willett joined the department in 1953 as a beat cop patrolling Garden City Park after serving four years in the Navy during the Korean War. At the time, he was one of 15 Black people on the Nassau police force.
Willett, who lived in Westbury with his wife, Floretta and his seven children, would spend much of his career in the department's new Community Relations Bureau.
In 1981, he was named deputy chief of patrol in 1981 and later moved up the ranks to inspector and first deputy commissioner — becoming one of the first Black employees to hold a senior leadership role of any kind in the county.
In 2000, then-County Executive Thomas Gulotta named Willett as police commissioner, becoming the first Black person to hold that role in all of Long Island. He served as commissioner until his retirement in 2002. Willett died in 2002 at the age of 71 after a short battle with lung cancer.
Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said he relied on Willett's leadership and knowledge as he rose through the ranks.
"I got to know him as a person and as a leader," said Ryder, who will posthumously upgrade Willett to detective, the only position in the department he aspired to but never achieved.
Rachelle Willett of Hempstead said her father would have been humbled that "that his fellow police officers, who he truly loved and cared about, would actually give him such honor for his almost 50 years of service. He would have been very happy."
Josette Parker Daniels, Willett's niece, added that "there are no words to express how much he would loved this day. He was such a dedicated and honorable man."
Nicolello acknowledged that the protests after George Floyd's death in police custody in Minneapolis, and the subsequent nationwide debate about the renaming statues, sports teams and government buildings, influenced the timing of the renaming.
The announcement by majority Republicans comes a week after Legis. Joshua Lafazan, an independent from Woodbury who caucuses with Democrats, introduced legislation to rename the Mineola building which houses the county Board of Elections after Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to win a seat in Congress. The Democratic proposal move would have made the Old Country Road building the first Nassau building to be named for an African American. A vote on the measure is also expected in September.
"We look forward to taking steps toward righting this wrong by honoring both of these trailblazing leaders — and many more — in the public square," said William Biamonte, chief of staff to minority Democrats. "However, memorialization must not be a substitute for systemic change."
Biamonte urged Republicans to support legislation, introduced by Democratic lawmakers, that would study alternative approaches by police officers toward dealing with subjects with mental health issues and a separate proposal to create a police misconduct complaint hotline and website.