For at least 25 years, the Nassau County Police Department used a “Y,” for yellow, to categorize Asian-American officers in its computer system. And it would have kept using the abbreviation had it not been for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which pointed out the problem last month.
How the practice was adopted is its own appalling mystery. But the fact that the practice persisted is even worse. It means either that no one ever noticed or no one ever cared. It also means the department never undertakes systematic reviews to determine whether its practices are racist or insensitive. But that’s not surprising in the face of department leaders’ attitudes toward police bias, which is to stake the impossible claim there is none in the NCPD.
The great irony is that the computer system categorizing the races, ethnicities and genders of officers was adopted in response to a federal consent decree. It mandated an increase of minority officers and women in the department to overcome bias.
There’s no way a 2,500-officer force could be free of bias. In fact, experts say it’s almost impossible for any human to be free of “implicit bias,” the attitudes that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions and decisions. That’s why we must always be learning about our biases, confronting and overcoming them.
In response to the “Y” issue, Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder told a reporter the department is not biased and “enjoys an excellent rapport with all of its residents.” All? Lots of people, of all kinds, fear or distrust the police.
Last year, the Newsday-News 12 Long Island investigative series “Unequal Jutsice” found that nonwhites on the Island were nearly five times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges typically resulting from traffic stops, a prime indicator of bias. The numbers were similarly skewed for drug possession arrests, though studies show whites and minorities use drugs at similar rates. Nonwhites make up 30 percent of the county population but account for more than 60 percent of resisting-arrest charges, an area that can be highly subject to police discretion, and thus bias.
And such biased policing can cost the whole community.
Monday, the Nassau County Legislature approved a $927,000 settlement for Darryl Coggins, a black man who was driving with two friends in Floral Park in October 2004 when he was stopped for no reason and harassed and intimdated by two white officers. Coggins fled, turned himself in the next day, and was charged with criminal possession of a weapon, resisting arrest and speeding. The charges, clearly sparked by race, later fell apart, according to Coggins’ attorney, Frederick Brewington. Both cops, neither of whom was fired, later admitted they had lied. It’s not an uncommon tale in Nassau County, according to Brewington.
All told, minorities make up 37 percent of the county’s residents, but only 13 percent of its police officers, and just 6 percent of those ranked above detective. That disparity affects the way the department operates and sees itself.
In 2015, I went through the county’s Civilian Police Academy, a three-month course on how policing works. Many attendees from minority communities tried to communicate the bias they felt from police.
They were told they were mistaken, that there was no bias, and that they were wrong about their own experiences.
But there is bias in the Nassau County Police Department. The numbers show it. The cavalier use of racial slurs in official systems shows it. The experience of residents shows it. The legal settlements show it.
And it can never be effectively addressed as long as leaders decree it does not exist.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.