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Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder reflects on his first year

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder is happy with the historically low crime numbers in 2018, but he says "if you stay static, you lose the battle."  Ryder, who was confirmed to the position in February 2018, has a 2019 agenda that includes efforts to introduce a new community policing initiative, adjust the department’s opioid response, continue gang investigations and reopen two police precincts. Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder fired off a few text messages early on Jan. 2, a day after the county finished 2018 with historically low crime rates for his first full year at the helm of the police department.

Ryder said in an interview his long-term goal is to perpetuate the trend throughout 2019. As part of that initiative, his plans to tackle gangs and opioids through community engagement and involvement in the new year began immediately. His agenda includes introducing a new community policing initiative, adjusting the department’s opioid response, continuing gang investigations and reopening two police precincts.

“Everybody got one year to warm up, now we’re going to take off,” he said recently in an interview in his headquarters office in Mineola, where he is surrounded by dozens of law enforcement “challenge coins” displayed across his desk, as well as baseball caps from other agencies, photographs of his family, plaques from throughout his career and a Nassau County Police Department flag in the corner. “I want to get ahead of the curve.”

Ryder, 56, who took over the department as acting commissioner in July 2017, wants to finish 2019 as what could potentially be the department’s 19th straight year of decreasing crime statistics. The county’s major crime, which includes murder, rape, burglary and robbery, dropped 28.6 percent over the past five years, according to the latest statistics.

Ryder, a married father of three, was confirmed to the position in February 2018 with County Executive Laura Curran’s nomination.

“I think he’s taken every challenge and everything that we have when it comes to public safety in Nassau County and brought the resources, the intelligence, the technology and forward-thinkingness to combat challenges, to go after these challenges, to take on these issues,” Curran said in an interview.

“We are united in our commitment to end the opioid epidemic, root out gang violence, and to stamp out corruption in government,” Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in a statement.

Ryder started his tenure in February 2018 with a full assault on drugs with Operation Natalie, named after Natalie Ciappa, a Nassau County teen who died of a drug overdose a decade ago. The initiative maps opioid overdoses and automobile larcenies — a crime drug users often commit — and concentrates police resources in those areas. The mapping is also paired with town hall meetings countywide to alert residents of the danger in their communities, as well as drug treatment for addicts and prevention plans.

Fatal heroin overdoses are down about 13 percent over the last year, while nonfatals have decreased byabout 24 percent, Ryder said, crediting the anti-drug initiative for part of the decline.

Jeffrey Reynolds, president of the Family and Children’s Association — a Mineola-based nonprofit that offers counseling and outpatient drug rehabilitation treatment — said Ryder got pushback after he publicly identified some of the Nassau communities hardest hit by the opioid crisis.

“Yet he showed up at community meetings armed with the data, looked local residents in the eyes and said, ‘I’m sorry if this conversation makes you uncomfortable, but our community has a problem and unless we all work together to solve it, we’re going to lose more kids,’” Reynolds recalled.

In 2019, Ryder said, he plans to augment the program to include partnering with schools and the Police Athletic League to reach younger children and working directly with villages and hamlets. “It was our biggest problem going in and it’s still going to be our focus,” he said of opioids.

In April, Ryder created the Commissioner’s Community Council, which includes more than 200 members from each legislative district. He said he needed to harness Nassau’s 1.3 million residents to not only keep the county safer but also to help the police work better with the community. “It’s 2.6 million eyes out there for me,” he said.

Nassau Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) lauded Ryder’s engagement with residents and empowering local leaders to work with the department.

“He’s a very community-oriented police commissioner,” Abrahams said, adding that he would like the Commissioner’s Community Council to grow in 2019. “He takes a very local approach and builds up from that.”

Ryder said he soon plans to roll out a new community policing initiative that combines the department’s problem-oriented policing, or POP, and Community Oriented Police Enforcement, or COPE, with the homeland security and community affairs units. “It’s one message, one team,” he said.

Ryder said the department will also maintain its fight against the violent transnational gang MS-13, as well as other gangs. Three of the department’s 16 homicides in 2018 were gang-related, though two of them were believed to have been committed in 2016 and 2017 but the victims’ bodies were found last year.

Ryder said the third gang-related homicide, the Dec. 18 fatal shooting of Harold B. Sermeno, 17, whose body was discovered behind the Five Towns Community Center in Lawrence, could be connected to MS-13 or the 18th Street gang.

Ryder said the department is working on several gang investigations, but declined to elaborate. He said the force is also working with the Hempstead Village police department following a spate of shootings and two daytime homicides in October and has previously worked with officials in Roosevelt and Uniondale following upticks in crime.

The new year could also bring the reopening of the closed Sixth Precinct in Manhasset and Eighth Precinct in Levittown, which had been closed since 2012 as part of a consolidation plan. Curran promised to reopen them during her campaign, though she said last week a timeline for those, as well as the construction of a police academy, has not been set.

“I would like to see the county executive live up to her word and reopen both the Sixth and the Eighth precincts,” Police Benevolent Association president James McDermott said.

Newly named commanding officers — Insp. Robert Musetich for the Sixth and Insp. Mark Vitelli for the Eighth — will oversee construction before they can open, as well as separating the currently-merged precincts, Ryder said.

John Wighaus, president of the Nassau County Detectives’ Association Inc., said there aren’t enough detectives to fill separate squads in the new precincts. There are 360 budgeted detective positions in the department but roughly 40 open slots.

“I want to see the right amount of detectives that we’re allotted,” Wighaus said, noting that although the county’s crime statistics are down “that still doesn’t mean we should be 40 detectives shorter than our budgeted number and sit on our laurels.”

Wighaus has previously said fewer officers are applying to become detectives because the current contract does not compensate them enough for the additional work and responsibility.

The union contracts for the detectives, as well as the Police Benevolent Association and the Superior Officers Association, expired on Dec. 31, 2017. Union officials said they hope to come to an agreement in 2019. Talks stalled in the fall following a dispute between Curran and a legislative committee over the hiring of a labor attorney.

“I’m labor, he’s management. . . . We’re not going to see eye-to-eye,” McDermott said, declining to comment further but noting a decades-long relationship with Ryder.

Curran said in October that the county is open to negotiating with the detectives union to end the shortage and reopen the precincts fully staffed.

Kevin Black, president of the Superior Officers Association, said he wants to see vacant supervisor positions filled this year. “I’d obviously like to continue them hiring and promoting,” he said. “Movement on the job is always good for the job.”

Despite Ryder’s successes last year, the department suffered some embarrassing moments. Four Nassau police officers were arrested: one who allegedly exposed himself to women at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow and three others who were accused of involvement in a drug ring and a conspiracy to commit robberies at Jake’s 58 Hotel and Casino in Islandia. Those cases are still pending.

“Every once in awhile you’re going to get a bad apple in the group,” the commissioner said, noting the department employs nearly 2,500 officers. “We can’t stop what they do off-duty, we can only educate them.”

And in October, Ryder acknowledged that the department should have alerted the public sooner about the officer who was allegedly exposing himself. “Not to make an excuse, the release should have went out,” he said at the time. “It didn’t go out. That’s what it is.”

On Jan. 4, Ryder completed 35 years as a police officer in the NYPD and NCPD. Throughout, he’s been haunted by the disappearance of Kelly Morrissey, 15, who lived in Ryder’s Lynbrook neighborhood. His younger siblings knew the high school freshman. She vanished in 1984, two days before Ryder’s birthday. Homicide detectives have kept investigating.

“There’s been a lot of leads, there’s been a lot of work done on the case,” he said. “Somebody knows the answer . . . If I had one thing that I hoped would be solved, it would be that,” Ryder said.

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