By approving a $7.7-million settlement, Nassau County has finally done the right thing for the children of Jo'Anna Bird, whose 2009 murder by a former boyfriend has cast a harsh spotlight on how the county police department deals with domestic abuse. Writing the check, however, doesn't mean the case is over.
The public still doesn't know much about police culpability in the New Cassel woman's torture and stabbing death by Leonardo Valdez-Cruz. In defending the county against a wrongful death action brought on behalf of Bird's two children, County Attorney John Ciampoli demanded that a 700-page internal police report never see the light of day. His laughable reasoning was that it would discourage other domestic violence victims from coming forward. In 2011, a magistrate handling the case for U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt agreed to stop Bird's attorney, Frederick Brewington, from releasing it.
More recently, Ciampoli didn't even want legislators, who needed to approve the settlement, to see it. When Presiding Officer Peter J. Schmitt (R-Massapequa) balked until he saw a justification for such a large amount, legislators were allowed a peek. Approval for the check soon followed, along with some provocative remarks from Schmitt and others.
Schmitt told News 12 Long Island, "It's just a total failure from top to bottom by the police department that's brought us to this place." At another point in the interview, he added, "There are 22 police officers in this county who were mentioned in that confidential internal affairs report who ought to be ashamed to look at themselves in the mirror every morning when they get up to shave -- much less be wearing the badge." Legis. Francis X. Becker Jr. (R-Lynbrook) voted against the settlement in protest, because officers involved in the case continue on the job without having been disciplined. That seems to be because ridiculous work rules require those cases to be decided by an outside arbitrator instead of the police department and its commissioner.
There's a lot more the public needs to know. Why was Valdez-Cruz, while in jail for violating an order of protection, given a police cellphone and allowed to make dozens of calls to Bird? Why, on his release from jail, did police officers drive him to Bird's car? And if it's true that his value as an informant was so small, was there another reason why police favored him above a victim? Was keeping the police department's secrets locked up forever the reason for the high price tag on the case? Even the terms of the settlement are confidential, so we don't know if it includes an agreement by Brewington to keep the explosive report forever sealed.
Another law enforcement agency -- whether federal, state or local -- needs to examine the internal report to tell us whether what went wrong has been corrected. It needs to investigate whether there were civil rights violations, perhaps a departmental bias against domestic violence victims, especially minority ones. New York law allows a grand jury to investigate such cases and release a fact-finding report on what laws or administrative processes need to change. Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice prosecuted Valdez-Cruz and was also named as a defendant in the wrongful death case. Rice is clearly disqualified from taking such action, but she should ask for a special prosecutor to take over.
Without such an independent look, the Bird case, like Bird herself, will fall through the cracks. And Nassau County will learn nothing from the experience, except that it was a very expensive mistake.