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What's in the Nassau, Suffolk police reform plans

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has released a

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has released a police reform draft of more than 400 pages. Credit: Barry Sloan

Wide-ranging proposals to reform police practices in Nassau and Suffolk counties — one of them over 1,000 pages — are nearing final votes as county governments face an April 1 deadline to file their plans with the state.

Last June, after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed Executive Order 203.

The order directed municipal police departments statewide to examine ways to improve policies on issues including officer recruitment, anti-bias training, the use of force, accountability and relating to minority communities.

"Many communities all across the country are dealing with issues concerning their police departments. The millions of people who gathered in protest, even in the midst of a public health crisis, made that clear. The situation is unsustainable for all," Cuomo said in a letter requesting police reform plans from 500 jurisdictions statewide with police departments.

"Local elected officials are the natural position to convene the process ... ," Cuomo wrote.

This month, lawmakers in Nassau and Suffolk held committee meetings and hearings in which they heard public comments from law enforcement, and community activists and county residents.

Each county legislature must approve a police reform plan before sending it to the state. Votes are expected Monday in the Nassau County Legislature, and on March 30 in the Suffolk legislature.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has drafted a plan of more than 400 pages, while a special task force assembled by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last week released a proposal that's more than 1,000 pages long.

A third plan created by dozens of community groups and advocates called "The People’s Plan" puts forth 12 proposals for structural changes for "the way our communities would like to be policed."

The 310-page document includes recommendations such as an end to deployment of school resource officers, more focus on language access and mental health, creation of a county Office of Police Inspector General and more civilian oversight of the police departments.

Also, the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department and a variety of local towns and villages have filed their own proposals.

Following are key recommendations in the plans from Curran, the Bellone panel and community activists for overhauling practices in the two county police departments:

Recruitment

Officials in both Nassau and Suffolk say they recognize the need to boost hiring of police officers from minority communities.

Curran's plan includes possible changes in Civil Service Law to attract police recruits of different ethnic backgrounds.

Nearly 87% of the Nassau department's civilian and sworn officers are white.

In an effort to attract recruits of other races and ethnicities, police officials say they are encouraging applicants who are proficient in another language, and will waive exam and application fees for those who are low-income.

Also, two new questions on the police department exam aim to gauge bias in applicants.

In Suffolk, where 85% of sworn police officers are white, officials will examine how to change the police exam and job criteria to include "cultural proficiency."

Suffolk County police also are considering hiring "an independent diversity consultant" for recruiting and training new officers.

The People's Plan calls on the county police departments to conduct recruit background checks that include searches for any litigation, domestic complaints and social-media posts involving job applicants.

The activists' plan recommends against hiring officers with a history of using force.

Training

Community advocates say officers need more training in building trust with residents of minority communities.

The three reform plans say officials in both counties have agreed to add more hours of anti-bias training to continuing education requirements for officers.

In Suffolk, Bellone's task force found senior police officers were not getting enough training to help them communicate and become more sensitive to the communities they serve.

So the task force backs mandated training for veteran officers in areas including professional communications, implicit bias, problem solving, procedural justice and cultural diversity.

Curran's plan adds eight additional hours of training to the 16 hours already required of Nassau police officers on implicit bias and cultural diversity. The expanded training, implemented in June 2020, also addresses morality and ethics. Police officials say they stress the importance of courage and holding each other accountable.

In partnership with Nassau Community College, police recruits will take courses in African American Studies, Black History in policing and Gender studies. African American, Asian, Jewish, Muslim and LGBTQ leaders will speak and provide scenarios for training purposes.

Use of force

Executive Order 203 asks departments to modernize and clarify protocols governing use of force.

Both the Nassau and Suffolk police reform plans pledge to increase de-escalation training to teach officers how to "slow down" incidents in which suspects, whether armed or not, are behaving erratically.

Nassau police policy allows officers to use force to protect themselves or another person from what the "officer reasonably believes is an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death."

Use of force also is permitted to stop fleeing suspects when officers have probable cause to believe they have committed a felony involving the infliction or threat of serious physical injury, and reasonably believe the suspect poses an imminent threat of serious physical injury to others.

Nassau police have agreed to make public a biannual report that includes statistics on incidents involving the use of force, the type of force used and a breakdown by community, according to Curran's report.

Also, county police commissioner staff will hold quarterly meetings with the county attorney's office to discuss pending litigation, settlements and verdicts involving allegations of police use of force. The aim is to allow department brass to monitor such cases for trends within police units or bureaus involving particular officers, according to Curran's reform plan.

Suffolk's plan adds more de-escalation training to its continuing education programs and proposes a civilian complaint bureau to "investigate" instances in which an officer used force. The county's Human Rights Commission would create the new bureau and review complaints of police misconduct involving use of force. Data on use of force incidents would be available to the public.

The People's Plan asks the Suffolk and Nassau police departments to publish "all raw use of force data." Community advocates want the county police departments to have policies on "minimal use of force" and protocols for how to interact with the community after deadly use of force incidents.

Traffic stops

Community groups and residents say police stop a disproportionate number of minorities, leading to strained relations with law enforcement and possible human rights violations.

In The People's Plan, community advocates call for officers to state their name, rank, command, date and the reason for the stop at the beginning of the interaction. If the stop does not lead to an arrest, police must provide that information in writing at the end of the contact.

The activists' proposal also calls for officers to document all traffic stops with demographic and location information that is entered into a digital database for public reporting.

But activists expressed concern about police officers asking motorists their race or ethnicity for fear it would be perceived as an immigration probe. As a compromise, the plan says Nassau officers will not request individuals' ethnicity, but note their "apparent race" for data collection purposes.

Curran's reform plan says Nassau police will begin collecting racial and ethnic data during traffic stops.

Suffolk police have been collecting traffic stop data since 2014 to comply with a U.S. Department of Justice settlement.

In its police reform plan, the county backs creation of an online dashboard for members of the public to access statistics on traffic stops by police precinct and geographic area.

Accountability/Body cameras

Nassau and Suffolk police are among the only large departments in the nation that do not use officer-worn body cameras widely, according to a recent Newsday story.

The Nassau and Suffolk police reform plans, along with The People's Plan, all address the technology.

Nassau County has retained a consultant, RedLand Strategies, which is run by former Republican State Sen. Michael Balboni, to provide advice on a new police bodycam program.

Curran has pledged to implement a bodycam program for officers throughout the police department.

Officers are expected to get stipends to participate, pending approval of a new Police Benevolent Association contract.

Members of Nassau's Superior Officers Association, which represents higher officers, agreed to wear body cameras while on patrol. Each will receive a stipend of $3,000 when the program is up and running.

The camera program will enable officials to examine police encounters to ensure officers are acting in "a manner consistent with the department’s mission and values," Nassau's reform plan states.

County police officers are expected to undergo training in use of the technology late this year, according to the proposal plan.

Suffolk's plan says all county police who engage with the public will wear bodycams as part of their standard equipment. Program policies, work rules and costs are subject to factors including union collective bargaining.

The plan says Suffolk police officers should be required to enable their cameras any time they interact with civilians.

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