Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale in his office at...

Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale in his office at police headquarters in Mineola (Jan. 12, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

If recently arrived Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale is going to make that organization shine, he needs the power to discipline his officers. Right now, he doesn't have it. Right now, the organization is badly battered in the eyes of the public, having endured a series of colossal failures. And right now is the time for changes.

In theory, Nassau cops who are members of the Police Benevolent Association can seek binding arbitration anytime they face a disciplinary penalty more serious than losing 10 days of pay. In practice, they don't even have to bother. The supervisors are so certain they won't get what they want from arbitration that they negotiate disciplinary actions with the union, and often settle for penalties far less harsh than appropriate. It's an unusual situation compared with other unionized police forces, although it's the same in Suffolk County.

That rule exists in the Nassau County code and as a work condition, given to PBA members by, surprise, arbitration. Dale wants changes, and the county legislature may vote May 21 on a law that would give him the power to discipline, or fire, cops who deserve it. The PBA plans to fight that change, and if the union loses that battle, it plans to go to court, saying the arbitration award still protects them.

If Dale perseveres, he will likely win. In nearly identical cases involving New York City and Orangetown, the state Court of Appeals ruled that the ability of police leadership to discipline cops is a responsibility that can't be bargained away, particularly if a local law provides that authority.

The county just paid out $7.7 million because Nassau officers would not protect Jo'anna Bird from the confidential informant who eventually killed her, and against whom she had an order of protection. Department leaders say 10 officers have been disciplined, but won't say how. No one has been fired.

The Nassau County crime lab was shuttered after its shoddy operations, lack of security, poor training and other shortcomings were revealed. Officers there not only couldn't be subjected to serious discipline by their superiors, they couldn't even be evaluated. Now thousands of cases are being revisited and drug samples retested. The financial cost is high, and the credibility loss, possible mistreatment of suspects and chaos caused by mishandling the cases are worse.

A cop flashes a gun in a bar. A cabbie is shot after a run-in with two allegedly inebriated off-duty officers. Another is accused of spending his shifts at the home of a mistress, napping and cavorting. Still more are investigated because they may be having sex with a woman in a van, mid-shift. And a uniformed clerk for the force earning almost $150,000 per year is charged with stealing $40 worth of baby food.

The vast majority of Nassau cops are fine, dedicated officers. But the bad apples need to go, and the system makes it almost impossible to dismiss them. What results is a woeful culture. The system serves the good cops who will never deserve serious discipline almost as poorly as it serves the populace, by besmirching them unfairly.

Dale is right to seek the power to discipline his force. He should persevere, with the full support of the county's legislature and residents, so he can deliver on his promise to better this department.