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Editorial: A start to improve Nassau police department

Nassau Police Cars sit outside the sixth precinct

Nassau Police Cars sit outside the sixth precinct in Manhasset. (Oct. 10, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

It's tempting to applaud Nassau Executive Edward Mangano and his administration for deciding to have a respected research organization review and try to strengthen the ethics policies of the county police department. It seems to cry out for an "admitting you have a problem and seeking help is half the battle" type of platitude. But that's not really the case here.

The nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum won the contract to review the ethics policies, rules and training. To be fair, that work is needed to address the ills of a department embarrassed by several recent events: its commissioner was forced out after he took steps, as a favor to a politically connected friend, to arrest a witness in a civil case; another top official was convicted of helping to prevent the arrest of a friend's son; an officer spent shifts with his mistress instead of covering his beat; and two officers were involved in the shooting of an unarmed cabdriver and a subsequent cover-up, but remain on the force.

But what's wrong with the department isn't a mystery: While most cops are good people doing difficult work, the culture of the department can include secrecy and an "above the law" attitude. Cops sometimes escape discipline for even egregious violations of departmental policy and the law. And a state law keeps practically all aspects of officer transgressions and discipline hidden from the public.

The culture of entitlement needs to change, and that has to come from the top down, starting with the appointment of the right commissioner. That commissioner must make good use of the power recently granted by the county legislature to discipline cops directly. And the state law that hides police transgressions must be amended.

Identifying the ethics problems and recommending ways to fix them will be by far the easiest task. Actually making changes will take determination, guts, transparency and persistence.