Police reform plans were ordered statewide by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo...

Police reform plans were ordered statewide by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Three years after Nassau and Suffolk counties committed to reforming how they police communities of color, officials and activists remain split on how much progress has been made.

Some of the more prominent measures of the counties' plans — such as equipping all officers with body cameras, creating mental health response teams and including more racial diversity on the forces — have been slow to implement, according to advocates. Data reported by the departments is inconsistent or incomplete, and advocates worry an inherent bias remains among the rank-and-file that makes it difficult to carry out the reform initiatives that began in April 2021.

“The reality is that persons of color — African Americans in particular — are walking on eggshells,” said Garden City civil rights attorney Fred Brewington, who has represented people of color in police misconduct cases. “There is a real concern about being stopped by police that's not based on anything you might have done.” 

Legis. John Ferretti, a Republican who serves as alternate deputy presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, said in a statement the county “is in full compliance with the initiatives set forth in the police reform plan.” In Suffolk, officials said reforms largely have been implemented.

The plans, ordered by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, aimed to hold police departments statewide accountable for their practices, or risk losing state funds. The details were left to police departments, with community input and approval from lawmakers. A spokesman for Gov. Kathy Hochul did not respond to a request for comment on whether the state is tracking progress. 

Nassau and Suffolk submitted proposals that were thousands of pages long, posted status updates and held legislative hearings. In Nassau, the police commissioner sends biannual progress reports to county legislators. In Suffolk, the reports are due every two years.

“Every law enforcement official has taken the call for reform seriously. They just aren’t on the same page as to how fast they are able to implement the changes,” said Jillian Snider, a retired NYPD officer, adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and policy director of R Institute, a Washington-based think tank. 

Snider, who has researched the practices of police departments across the country, said resources spent on collecting and analyzing data to better inform enforcement decisions vary by department. 

Police officials, local governments and community advocates who created the reform plans in Nassau and Suffolk might have “tried to implement too many changes at one time,” Snider said. “It’s a culture that’s been so accustomed to doing things the same way.”

Change can't occur soon enough for Martine Macdonald, 44, of Huntington, who said he was wrongfully stopped by an unmarked police car in March 2020.

Macdonald, a social worker and community advocate who works with underserved youth, was blocks from his home when he was followed and accused of failing to brake at a stop sign by plainclothes officers. Four patrol cars arrived moments later, for backup, after Macdonald told the officers who he was and that he believed his rights were being violated. 

Macdonald was taken into custody and his vehicle was searched before he was released at 2:30 a.m. without having been found of any violations, he said. He is suing Suffolk County for false arrest and several civil rights violations. 

“These issues have been transpiring in these communities for as long as I can remember,” said Macdonald. “I knew exactly what was going on. I happen to be an African American man in an African American neighborhood.”

Nassau's biannual reports, posted on the police department's website, include data on arrests, use of force and cases involving the response of mental health professionals and use of the department's foreign language line to help with translation between officers and subjects. The most recent report available tracks data from the first half of 2023.

Other information that advocates and lawmakers have asked for, such as the number of interactions people have with police, is incomplete.

For example, according to the report, from January through June of 2023, a total of 404,725 body-worn camera recordings were logged. No information on the number of officers who are equipped with the technology is provided. The report also says 31,472 applicants preregistered to sit for the police exam in January 2024, but there are no numbers on the racial breakdown of those who graduate from the academy and become officers.

Legis. Debra Mulé (D-Freeport), a member of the Nassau Legislature's public safety committee, said the lack of details “raises troubling questions regarding accountability and openness in governance.”

“Compounded by the unavailability of essential data collected by police in 2023, identifying areas for improvement becomes an almost impossible challenge, underscoring the urgent necessity for transparency within the current administration,” Mulé said.   

The next biannual report was due in January. Republican County Executive Bruce Blakeman on Wednesday said the police department is “meticulously fine-tuning a draft report that will be in final form within the next 10 days and filed immediately thereafter. Our target date was always the first week in March.” 

As of early February, the vast majority of the force, including 1,803 patrol officers and 353 higher-ranking officers in Nassau police, wear body cameras, according to department spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun.

LeBrun said the entire force, 2,529 members, have been trained in implicit bias. He said of the preregistered 33,422 applicants for the January 2024 exam, 47% were white, 26% Hispanic, 15% Black, 8% Asian and 2% other. 

A two-year progress report in Suffolk is expected soon. The county's website has a reform tracker that provides the status of various areas of the plan. 

Nearly all of the department's 2,516 members have been trained to use body cameras, and 1,635 cameras have been distributed to PBA officers, according to Mike Martino, a spokesman for Republican Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine. The department will issue cameras to sergeants and lieutenants in the coming months, he said.

Martino said 1,601 officers since 2021 have taken a class on race, gender, sexuality and other identities, and 786 have taken a class on reducing and managing biases.   

Jon Kaiman, who worked on the reform plan as a deputy county executive under former Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said the administration was “pretty effective at getting most of it out the door and implemented.” 

Brewington and other advocates held a news conference in December to “set the record straight” after Bellone touted progress. They said the department still fails to adequately investigate and discipline officers accused of misconduct and that extreme racial disparities in traffic stops continue.

Legis. Sam Gonzalez (D-Brentwood), the sole Suffolk lawmaker to vote against the plan in 2021, said there have been improvements, including more officers of color and more bilingual officers. A department spokesman said the current recruit class is the most diverse in its history, with 31% of members identifying as Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native American.

There are 77 sworn members of the department who identify as Black, including eight Black members of the current recruit class.

Gonzalez said the two-year report should give him a clearer picture of the progress.

“I have to see the report because that is what is going to propel me into asking the most pertinent questions,” he said.

Suffolk's plan calls for the county to publicly post traffic stop data, but advocates say the online dashboard falls short of showing where racial disparities exist.

The data doesn't show whether people were stopped while they were walking or riding a bicycle, said Peggy Fort of United for Justice in Policing Long Island. And the county hasn't submitted a required annual analysis of traffic stops, she said.

A note on the police department’s website says inconsistencies between some of the pedestrian data can be attributed to the county's September 2022 cyberattack.

“It's not the way we had expected and the way they had promised for this to be,” Fort said. “We want a picture of exactly what's happening, and we're looking to see tremendous improvement.”

Emily Kaufman, a steering committee member of Long Island United to Transform Policing and Community Safety, said more data is needed on how the department handles calls involving mental health issues and how many callers are later connected with services.

Trained officers also use a telehealth program to confer with a mental health specialist during those calls. Kaufman said advocates were told 500 of 7,600 mental health-related calls have used the service.

“This a great start for a pilot program,” she said. “But how are you measuring if it's successful? How are you taking a look at what needs to change? Are you planning to scale it up? What is your plan to scale it up? There are no details.”

Three years after Nassau and Suffolk counties committed to reforming how they police communities of color, officials and activists remain split on how much progress has been made.

Some of the more prominent measures of the counties' plans — such as equipping all officers with body cameras, creating mental health response teams and including more racial diversity on the forces — have been slow to implement, according to advocates. Data reported by the departments is inconsistent or incomplete, and advocates worry an inherent bias remains among the rank-and-file that makes it difficult to carry out the reform initiatives that began in April 2021.

“The reality is that persons of color — African Americans in particular — are walking on eggshells,” said Garden City civil rights attorney Fred Brewington, who has represented people of color in police misconduct cases. “There is a real concern about being stopped by police that's not based on anything you might have done.” 

Legis. John Ferretti, a Republican who serves as alternate deputy presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, said in a statement the county “is in full compliance with the initiatives set forth in the police reform plan.” In Suffolk, officials said reforms largely have been implemented.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Three years after Nassau and Suffolk counties committed to reforming how they police communities of color, officials and activists remain divided on how much progress has been made.

  • County officials say the reforms largely have been implemented. Advocates say the data reported by police departments is inconsistent or incomplete, and worry an inherent bias remains among the rank-and-file that makes it difficult to carry out reform initiatives.

  • Progress reports in both counties are expected in the coming weeks.

The plans, ordered by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, aimed to hold police departments statewide accountable for their practices, or risk losing state funds. The details were left to police departments, with community input and approval from lawmakers. A spokesman for Gov. Kathy Hochul did not respond to a request for comment on whether the state is tracking progress. 

Nassau and Suffolk submitted proposals that were thousands of pages long, posted status updates and held legislative hearings. In Nassau, the police commissioner sends biannual progress reports to county legislators. In Suffolk, the reports are due every two years.

“Every law enforcement official has taken the call for reform seriously. They just aren’t on the same page as to how fast they are able to implement the changes,” said Jillian Snider, a retired NYPD officer, adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and policy director of R Institute, a Washington-based think tank. 

Snider, who has researched the practices of police departments across the country, said resources spent on collecting and analyzing data to better inform enforcement decisions vary by department. 

Police officials, local governments and community advocates who created the reform plans in Nassau and Suffolk might have “tried to implement too many changes at one time,” Snider said. “It’s a culture that’s been so accustomed to doing things the same way.”

Change can't occur soon enough for Martine Macdonald, 44, of Huntington, who said he was wrongfully stopped by an unmarked police car in March 2020.

Macdonald, a social worker and community advocate who works with underserved youth, was blocks from his home when he was followed and accused of failing to brake at a stop sign by plainclothes officers. Four patrol cars arrived moments later, for backup, after Macdonald told the officers who he was and that he believed his rights were being violated. 

Macdonald was taken into custody and his vehicle was searched before he was released at 2:30 a.m. without having been found of any violations, he said. He is suing Suffolk County for false arrest and several civil rights violations. 

“These issues have been transpiring in these communities for as long as I can remember,” said Macdonald. “I knew exactly what was going on. I happen to be an African American man in an African American neighborhood.”

Nassau reforms

Nassau's biannual reports, posted on the police department's website, include data on arrests, use of force and cases involving the response of mental health professionals and use of the department's foreign language line to help with translation between officers and subjects. The most recent report available tracks data from the first half of 2023.

Other information that advocates and lawmakers have asked for, such as the number of interactions people have with police, is incomplete.

For example, according to the report, from January through June of 2023, a total of 404,725 body-worn camera recordings were logged. No information on the number of officers who are equipped with the technology is provided. The report also says 31,472 applicants preregistered to sit for the police exam in January 2024, but there are no numbers on the racial breakdown of those who graduate from the academy and become officers.

Legis. Debra Mulé (D-Freeport), a member of the Nassau Legislature's public safety committee, said the lack of details “raises troubling questions regarding accountability and openness in governance.”

“Compounded by the unavailability of essential data collected by police in 2023, identifying areas for improvement becomes an almost impossible challenge, underscoring the urgent necessity for transparency within the current administration,” Mulé said.   

The next biannual report was due in January. Republican County Executive Bruce Blakeman on Wednesday said the police department is “meticulously fine-tuning a draft report that will be in final form within the next 10 days and filed immediately thereafter. Our target date was always the first week in March.” 

As of early February, the vast majority of the force, including 1,803 patrol officers and 353 higher-ranking officers in Nassau police, wear body cameras, according to department spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun.

LeBrun said the entire force, 2,529 members, have been trained in implicit bias. He said of the preregistered 33,422 applicants for the January 2024 exam, 47% were white, 26% Hispanic, 15% Black, 8% Asian and 2% other. 

Suffolk reforms

A two-year progress report in Suffolk is expected soon. The county's website has a reform tracker that provides the status of various areas of the plan. 

Nearly all of the department's 2,516 members have been trained to use body cameras, and 1,635 cameras have been distributed to PBA officers, according to Mike Martino, a spokesman for Republican Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine. The department will issue cameras to sergeants and lieutenants in the coming months, he said.

Martino said 1,601 officers since 2021 have taken a class on race, gender, sexuality and other identities, and 786 have taken a class on reducing and managing biases.   

Jon Kaiman, who worked on the reform plan as a deputy county executive under former Democratic Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, said the administration was “pretty effective at getting most of it out the door and implemented.” 

Brewington and other advocates held a news conference in December to “set the record straight” after Bellone touted progress. They said the department still fails to adequately investigate and discipline officers accused of misconduct and that extreme racial disparities in traffic stops continue.

Legis. Sam Gonzalez (D-Brentwood), the sole Suffolk lawmaker to vote against the plan in 2021, said there have been improvements, including more officers of color and more bilingual officers. A department spokesman said the current recruit class is the most diverse in its history, with 31% of members identifying as Asian, Black, Hispanic and Native American.

There are 77 sworn members of the department who identify as Black, including eight Black members of the current recruit class.

Gonzalez said the two-year report should give him a clearer picture of the progress.

“I have to see the report because that is what is going to propel me into asking the most pertinent questions,” he said.

Suffolk's plan calls for the county to publicly post traffic stop data, but advocates say the online dashboard falls short of showing where racial disparities exist.

The data doesn't show whether people were stopped while they were walking or riding a bicycle, said Peggy Fort of United for Justice in Policing Long Island. And the county hasn't submitted a required annual analysis of traffic stops, she said.

A note on the police department’s website says inconsistencies between some of the pedestrian data can be attributed to the county's September 2022 cyberattack.

“It's not the way we had expected and the way they had promised for this to be,” Fort said. “We want a picture of exactly what's happening, and we're looking to see tremendous improvement.”

Emily Kaufman, a steering committee member of Long Island United to Transform Policing and Community Safety, said more data is needed on how the department handles calls involving mental health issues and how many callers are later connected with services.

Trained officers also use a telehealth program to confer with a mental health specialist during those calls. Kaufman said advocates were told 500 of 7,600 mental health-related calls have used the service.

“This a great start for a pilot program,” she said. “But how are you measuring if it's successful? How are you taking a look at what needs to change? Are you planning to scale it up? What is your plan to scale it up? There are no details.”

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