Patches of the Suffolk County Police Department and the Nassau...

Patches of the Suffolk County Police Department and the Nassau County Police Department. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

One year after Nassau and Suffolk counties submitted sweeping police reform plans ordered by former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody, county officials and community activists are split over how much progress has been made.

Both counties have approved body camera programs to record interactions between police and residents, after years of resistance to such programs by police unions.

Suffolk police have created an online dashboard where the public can access data on traffic stops, hate crimes and the demographics of county police officers.

Nassau is making reports with similar data available publicly on the county police department's website. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A year after Nassau and Suffolk counties produced police reform plans after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis Police custody, county officials and community activists disagree about how much progress has been made.
  • Body camera programs to record interactions between police and residents have been approved. And Suffolk has an online dashboard where the public can access data on traffic stops and other matters.
  • But activists said neither Nassau nor Suffolk has developed ways of dealing effectively with police disciplinary issues. They also say progress on diversifying police ranks has been slow.

Both counties require more hours of anti-bias training for police officers and cadets, while Nassau has started programs to boost hiring of recruits from more diverse backgrounds.

Deputy Suffolk County Executive Jon Kaiman said the county is "investing millions and millions of dollars, reorganizing how police are evaluated, changing the command." 

Suffolk's police reform plan is “not simply making a few superficial changes to what we're doing and it's not mending language to make us sound or feel better," said Kaiman, who helped craft the county plan.

"It's really meant to change the culture of policing in Suffolk County in a way that's inclusive and effective for both the police and for the public," he said.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, a Republican who inherited the 400-page police reform plan created by former Democratic County Executive Laura Curran, called the plan a "good compromise" and said he planned to implement it.

It's "a document we can all live with," Blakeman told Newsday. "I think it balances competing interests and I think that's always a good thing when government can balance interests."

But community activists, who campaigned unsuccessfully for reform plans to include independent civilian review boards to handle complaints of police misconduct, said neither Nassau nor Suffolk has developed ways of dealing effectively with police disciplinary issues.

Also, activists say, progress on issues such as diversifying the ranks of Nassau and Suffolk police and curbing ethnic and racial bias in traffic stops has been slow.

Serena Liguori, a member of Suffolk County's Police Reform Task Force, expressed concern about a lack of progress in outreach to communities of color in Suffolk by individual police officers.

“Frankly, we need to see more of that from the individual beat cops,” Liguori told Newsday.

“We have not seen it translate into outcomes when individual cops are talking with community members who don’t live in their neighborhoods or have the same socio-economic background or race,” said Liguori, executive director of New Hour for Women and Children-LI, a Brentwood nonprofit that aids formerly incarcerated women and children.

Suffolk officials note the county requires police officers to get out of their patrol cars to engage with community members for at least one hour a week, in an initiative called "Park, Walk and Talk." Community engagement also is a factor in officer performance evaluations.

Civil rights attorney Frederick K. Brewington said that in Nassau, "there's been no real reform which has taken place. Body cameras is not reform. Body cameras is moving the Nassau police into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century."

Brewington also argued that in both Nassau and Suffolk, police internal affairs departments "continue to be ineffective" in disciplining officers for misconduct.

Deputy Suffolk County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter said "part of the challenge of the plan is changing the paradigm of policing."

Baird-Streeter, who oversaw the county's police reform efforts with Kaiman, continued: "You're changing the mindset of a police officer to look at — yes, your priority is to protect and serve — but we want you to think from a standpoint of a problem solver."

Following is a look at how Nassau and Suffolk have performed so far on key initiatives in their police reform plans:

Accountability/body cameras

A Newsday survey of the nation's 50 largest law enforcement agencies last year found that only the Nassau and Suffolk police departments, and the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon, had not equipped large numbers of officers with body cameras before 2020.

But since Nassau and Suffolk submitted their police reform plans to the state last April, police unions have signed agreements with the counties requiring a total of about 4,000 police officers to wear cameras as part of their uniforms.

In September, after committing $3.1 million to hire 23 new analysts to help operate its bodycam program, the Nassau Police Department launched a pilot program to equip patrol officers with cameras in the First Precinct in Baldwin and the Eighth in Bethpage.

Under an agreement announced last May, Nassau purchased 2,500 body cams from Island Tech Services of Ronkonkoma for $5 million.

As of Jan. 1, officers throughout the department, except detectives, were required to wear body cameras, Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder told Newsday.

Under union agreements with Nassau, each officer receives an annual stipend of $3,000 for wearing a camera.

In Suffolk, the administration of County Executive Steve Bellone and the Police Benevolent Association, the county's largest law enforcement union, reached agreement in December to outfit 1,600 of the PBA's 2,400 members with body cameras.

Under the pact, Suffolk County police officers will receive stipends of $1,000 a year for the first three years of the program, and $3,000 a year after that.

The county has allocated $24 million over five years in its capital budget to purchase body cameras, implement the program and maintain the devices and necessary data systems.

But Suffolk still hasn't announced a date to begin rolling out the body camera program. That's because contract negotiations with a vendor to operate the program aren't complete, Baird-Streeter said.

Nassau and Suffolk also are handling the overall issue of police misconduct differently.

Per its police reform plan, Suffolk has agreed to give the county Human Rights Commission the power to review misconduct complaints and oversee police Internal Affairs Bureau investigations. The commission can recommend additional steps that Internal Affairs should take to investigate complaints.

Baird-Streeter said she expects the commission to begin reviewing misconduct allegations in the "very near future." In the meantime, county Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison is overseeing Internal Affairs.

Nassau's police reform plan leaves misconduct complaints in the hands of Internal Affairs, as has been the case for years.

Training

Advocates and county officials who drafted the police reform plans said officers need more training in how to build trust with residents of minority communities and de-escalate confrontations.

The Nassau County Police Academy now requires cadets to take an additional eight hours of training a year about implicit racial and ethnic bias, ethical awareness and cultural diversity.

Such training occurs just before graduation, with academy staff stressing ethical and moral courage and the importance of officers holding each other accountable for their actions, officials said.

For academy cadets in Suffolk, officials are bringing in “real people” from local communities to discuss their experiences with police and re-create resident-police interactions they've experienced or witnessed.

Community members critique the role-playing afterward.

Previously during such training, cadets interacted only with each other, police officials said.

Nathalia Varela, associate counsel with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said the county needs to do more to repair its relationship with minority communities.

"The department still has a long way to go to address its history of lack of transparency, and withholding of key data, and disproportionate policing of Black and Latinx communities,” Varela told Newsday in a statement. 

Mental health

Nassau and Suffolk police data show most police interactions involve residents with mental health and substance abuse issues or problems associated with homelessness.

"There is a crisis in this country that we can all work together for a better resolution. We've handled it very well in the past, but we can get better now," Ryder told Newsday. 

Last year, Nassau police responded to more than 4,400 cases involving mental health issues, Ryder said.

The Nassau and Suffolk police reform plans call for a new approach to such cases. 

Under new procedures in Nassau, a 911 call is referred to the county's Mobile Crisis Team, made up of police and social workers, before police are dispatched.

If the emergency operator determines the safety of residents or police may be at risk, both police officers and social workers respond, according to county police.

If violence is occurring, police officers will respond to the scene.

Suffolk County police said they handled about 5,000 incidents involving people with reported mental illness in 2021.

Suffolk recently unveiled programs recommended in the county's police reform plan to help 911 operators respond to calls involving residents with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Similar to the Nassau program, Suffolk police dispatchers divert calls to a crisis hotline.

Residents with mental health issues who are involved in three or more 911 calls within six months are referred to the Family Service League.

The nonprofit social services agency operates the Diagnostic, Assessment and Stabilization Hub (DASH), a 24-hour crisis hotline. 

Liguori, of New Hour for Women, told Newsday she was pleased with the progress in Suffolk in responding to mental health calls.

“In terms of mental health, we are making some really great headway. We are excited to see this roll out,” Liguori said.

Traffic stops

Both the Nassau and Suffolk reform plans point to the disproportionate number of minorities stopped for minor traffic issues as a key reason for mistrust of law enforcement in many minority communities.

Also, cases in which officers are found to have violated the rights of minority motorists force the counties to pay costly legal settlements, sometimes in the millions of dollars.

Under Nassau's police reform plan, patrol officers must make public information such as the age, sex, race/ethnicity and language of people they stop.

Mandatory data also includes the date, time, location and duration of the traffic stop, along with the reason for the stop.

Suffolk has been required to collect such data since 2014 under a U.S. Department of Justice consent decree stemming from an investigation into whether the county had failed to equitably police Latino communities.

As a result of its police reform plan, Suffolk County also has developed a warning system for minor vehicle equipment violations such as broken taillights.

The aim is to avoid confrontations with police over tickets, according to county officials. Under the policy, motorists receive a warning and a deadline to fix the vehicle problem.

Also, officer performance evaluations no longer are based on how many tickets they write for equipment violations.

Deborah Little, an analyst for the United for Justice in Policing Long Island, a nonprofit activist group, said the group is analyzing traffic stop data from the new Suffolk police dashboard and is waiting for more data from Nassau police.

"From the research we've done on [Suffolk's] data there is a systemic bias and it's not about a few bad apples. It's about a system of policing and bad practices," Little told Newsday.

Little said both counties are working on the traffic-stop issue, "but we don't know yet if it's effective."

In response, Harrison said: “Through our police reform plan and initiatives such as our public-facing data dashboards, we are able to create greater transparency between the department and the communities we serve."

Also, "the data transparency hub provides the department with powerful statistical insights that will allow for data-driven decision-making so that we can make further progress on these important issues,” Harrison said.

Recruiting a more diverse police force

Officials in both counties said they have changed recruiting practices in an effort to hire more nonwhite officers.

The lack of diversity has been a persistent problem for both the Nassau and Suffolk police departments.

A 2021 Newsday investigation found Nassau and Suffolk county police disproportionately rejected qualified Black and Hispanic applicants at a rate that exceeded a federal bench mark used to detect evidence of unlawful discrimination.

In September, Suffolk officials began an effort to determine why the county police department was turning away certain applicants.

The county Human Resources, Personnel and Civil Service departments began reviewing the applications of candidates the police department had rejected.

The county also created a mechanism for applicants to challenge hiring decisions, as the Suffolk police reform plan had recommended.

Unsuccessful police candidates receive a written statement from Human Resources with reasons for rejections and instructions for how to appeal the hiring decision.

In a six-month progress report, Nassau police said there were 98 young prospective officers enrolled in a mentorship program designed to help recruit more diverse candidates.

The goal is to keep applicants engaged in the hiring process from preregistration, through the police exam and the police academy, police officials said.

 

The Nassau Police Department also asks fraternal orders such as the Nassau County Police Hispanic Society to host forums and mentor younger recruits and others who are exploring careers in law enforcement.

Department leaders also visit historically Black colleges nationwide seeking recruits. 

"The reaction was not wrong after George Floyd," Ryder told Newsday.

"The reaction said 'Hey, we got to have reform.' I agree," Ryder said.

"But we didn't have George Floyd here," Ryder said. "We spend numerous hours trying to talk people off the ledge. And that's what we are so good at here." 

Cheryl Keshner of the Long Island branch of the Empire Justice Center, a nonprofit that provides free legal advice on noncriminal matters to low-income residents, said police in Suffolk need to bolster hiring of officers who speak other languages, particularly Spanish.

“Although policies have improved significantly in Suffolk County, in terms of language access, progress has lagged and that’s something that has an impact on people’s lives on a daily basis,” Keshner told Newsday.

“I know that they are trying to diversify the department but there’s got to be more done on these critical issues because it is putting people’s lives at risk,” Keshner said.

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