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Editorial: Nassau police housecleaning overdue

Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale addressing the

Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Dale addressing the families of children who are Nassau Explorers. (July 24, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

It's not realistic to expect that a police department the size of Nassau County's, with nearly 2,400 officers, can avoid screwups or bad apples. But it is reasonable to demand that such problems be ferreted out and dealt with sternly.

If there's a bright spot in recent allegations about problems in the department -- such as a precinct leader under- and misreporting crimes, an on-duty patrol officer napping and having sex at a girlfriend's house, and high-ranking officers sweeping offenses committed by the son of a well-connected supporter under the rug -- it's that they are at least being addressed seriously. For the first time in recent memory a high-ranking member of the Nassau County Police Department has been demoted two steps, from inspector to captain, and for good reason. Fifth Precinct commander Thomas DePaola's pay also was cut from $170,000 per year to $156,000, after it was discovered that his precinct was failing to report some property crimes, and classifying crimes in less-severe categories.

Department leaders say DePaola did the same while running the Sixth Precinct from January 2011 until June of this year. It was the stark drop in crimes DePaola reported after taking over the Fifth (grand larcenies, for instance, down 40 percent) that tipped his hand.

Undercounting crimes makes a precinct and its officers look more effective than they are, misinforming residents and damaging efforts to fight crime. But attempts by Democrats in the county legislature to politicize this issue -- claiming the county's consolidation of precincts from eight to four is somehow unjustified because a tiny percentage of crime in Nassau was underreported -- have little merit. Thanks to minimum manning required by labor contracts in 177 sectors, Nassau has comprehensive police coverage. The fact that there are fewer cops in four former precinct buildings doesn't change that, nor does the misreporting of a relatively small number of crimes.

Department brass were right to, at the very least, demote DePaola. Whether the discipline should have been harsher, or he should have so easily landed in the chief of patrol's office, where he will do "various administrative work," is a fair question, but tougher to answer.

The handling of the incident indicates that Thomas Dale, who became Nassau police commissioner on Jan. 2, is serious about tackling problems. But it is also clear that there are serious problems to tackle.

Dale has also begun deploying a new tool. In May, the legislature gave him the authority to levy serious discipline, including firing, without binding arbitration. Proceedings are under way against several officers whom Dale wants gone, and some hearings are set for August. However, the Police Benevolent Association will sue, saying its contract and case law guarantee that arbitration. Hopefully Dale will prevail, because a commissioner who can't discipline cops can't control them, either.

The traditional practice of allowing incompetent or untrustworthy officers to stay on the force, often in out-of-the-way or meaningless positions, lends itself to more incompetence and is a waste of money. Meting out serious penalties should reap Dale and Nassau County exponential dividends in the form of better policing.