Jennifer Gonzalez with her son, Kenny Lazo Jr.

Jennifer Gonzalez with her son, Kenny Lazo Jr. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The recent $35 million federal jury award to the family of Kenny Lazo in a wrongful-death lawsuit shows in no uncertain terms that the Suffolk County Police Department is an entity characterized by entrenched racism, lack of accountability, failure to adhere to its own policies, excessive force, and basic inhumanity. This case, and others that have happened since, prove that we need real solutions now. It’s time to implement a civilian complaint review board — an independent body to review police misconduct cases and determine disciplinary measures — in Suffolk County.

As outlined in The People's Plan developed by three police reform advocacy groups — LI United to Transform Policing and Community Safety, United for Justice in Policing Long Island, and Long Island Advocates for Police Accountability — along with great community input, such a board would have the power to investigate complaints against the police by gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and issuing subpoenas. It would be able to:

  1. Direct the police commissioner to take disciplinary action, as opposed to bodies that issue nonbinding recommendations.
  2. Require diversity of membership that reflects the county population and not allow former law enforcement officers or partisan political operatives to be members.
  3. Mandate data compilation that would demonstrate which communities and populations are most impacted by police misconduct.

Long Island Advocates for Police Accountability has drafted legislation for the creation of a review board. It details how an effective board with teeth would address the problem of police "policing themselves." An independent, unbiased review of police misconduct cases, with a mechanism for proportionate discipline and not just a slap on the wrist, is necessary to change the culture of the SCPD. As many experts have stated, there is no real change without accountability. The Lazo case is not an isolated incident; since this case in 2008, multiple lawsuits and findings have confirmed police misconduct and abuse of authority in Suffolk County.

It is true that effective civilian complaint review boards can be complicated to establish. They must have sufficient funds and staffing for investigations, they must have the tenacity to push back against police departments that can be uncooperative in allowing access to documents, and they must have members who are above reproach and without special interests. But they can work. And a board would be much cheaper than the $165 million in taxpayer money Long Island has paid to settle suits against the police since 2000. Adding the Lazo settlement would bring the figure to $200 million.

While Suffolk might respond that it has taken steps by involving the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission in reviewing police misconduct matters, the commission is not an independent agency and has no authority to render final determinations. It is staffed by the county and has limited resources. It has no subpoena power to conduct independent interviews of police and can only recommend actions if they disagree with an Internal Affairs Bureau finding.

We don’t need to scratch our heads, wondering how we can change this broken system. The answers are in the plan drafted by advocates who have been working on this issue and raising their voices for years. They have been delivering this message to police commissioners, county executives and legislators, state officials and other electeds. The jury in the Lazo case has backed them up.

Suffolk County needs a civilian complaint review board now.

This guest essay reflects the views of Mary Beth Guyther, a member of Long Island Advocates for Police Accountability.

This guest essay reflects the views of Mary Beth Guyther, a member of Long Island Advocates for Police Accountability.


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