It is becoming clear that the swirling battles over the Nassau County Police Department are not about public safety. For the police unions, Democrats and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, the issues are money and power and politics.
Mangano wants to turn four of the department's eight precinct houses into "community policing centers," each staffed around the clock by two-officer shifts. Residents would use them to report crimes, get police reports and do most of the other things they do at precincts. These facilities, however, won't house or process suspects.
Mangano says doing this and offering buyouts to high-paid members of the force can save $20 million a year without trimming the number of cops on the street. Spreading the estimated $6-million to $8-million cost of the buyouts over 10 years by borrowing isn't terribly responsible, but the overall plan makes sense.
The unions and Democratic legislators are trying to kill the plan by running commercials and organizing rallies. They are also twisting crime numbers in unsupportable ways to awaken the fear of crime. And the Mangano administration has responded by touting a crackdown on burglars rather than clarifying the numbers.
This week we learned burglaries in Nassau are up 69 percent for the first six weeks of the year over the same period in 2011. That is, strictly speaking, true. However, the anomaly isn't this year's numbers -- it's last year's. Through Feb. 6 of 2012, there were 225 burglaries in Nassau. In 2011, it was 133.
But for that period in 2009 the number was 225 -- exactly the same as this year. In 2010 it was 250, 11 percent higher than over the past six weeks.
In the first six weeks of each of the past four years, the numbers are steady, with the exception of 2011, when heavy snow and frigid temperatures are believed to have kept burglars, as well as their prospective victims, home.
"We are losing the battle with crime in Nassau County," Police Benevolent Association President James Carver said. Gary Learned, president of the Superior Officers Association, chimed in, "The worst crimes for residents are burglaries and home invasions, because the biggest service we give the public is that feeling of being safe."
How topsy-turvy has the situation become when police union leaders fight for their members by claiming these crime fighters are doing a far worse job than they actually are? Over the last few years, crime is down in Nassau County, which, with Suffolk, has the lowest crime rate of any large metropolitan area in the country.
Nassau doesn't have a crime problem, it has a contract problem. Mangano's precinct and buyout plans are worth doing, though they don't solve the long-term problem. Nassau police, after nine years on the job, reach full salary, earning a base pay of $108,132. They generally take home a lot more with differentials and overtime, along with great benefits.
The real problem with Mangano's plan is that it doesn't change the crushing structural expenses of the department. Until these change, buyouts and cutbacks will be a recurring norm, not a one-time last resort, and these sporadic "crime waves" will likely keep coming.