Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale, left, and Nassau County Executive...

Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale, left, and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano speak about the yes vote for precinct closures by the Nassau Legislature (March 5, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Nassau County Legislature wisely agreed to reduce the number of police precincts in the county from eight to four Monday, with all 10 Republicans voting to go ahead with the move and all nine Democrats voting against it. The "closures" aren't really closures at all, just changing four precincts into "community policing centers." Approving these changes was the responsible thing to do. Fighting them with fearmongering wasn't.

These locations will no longer be used to process or house suspects, but the original plan seems to be expanding beyond keeping two officers at each center 24 hours a day. It's likely detectives and desk lieutenants will work out of each of the buildings, which is fine.

In truth, the argument has always been about the word "precinct," and the fact that, because minimum staffing of each shift is tied to the precinct assignments of officers, significant overtime costs were created by keeping cops from crossing precinct lines. Fewer precincts means larger staffs in each precinct, more options for staffing and less overtime, one big reason the unions fought the plan.

Changing that should create savings in addition to the $20 million per year Nassau Executive Edward Mangano says can be reaped by eliminating about 100 administrative positions in this move.

New Police Commissioner Thomas Dale, whose appointment was confirmed at Monday's meeting, said of the exact details, "This is still a work in progress." Meetings between county administrators and the various police unions continued throughout the day, but the heads of the three unions, each of whom said their only concern is the safety of residents, could not persuade legislators to table the matter for a week.

The vote came at a long meeting of the legislature that featured county residents who were wrongly convinced that the safest large metropolitan area in the nation will be besieged by crime. They spoke about the dangers of the changes, and catcalled legislators who disagreed with them.

But these speakers, and the Democrats who opposed the closures, didn't offer much of a plan for how to erase a deficit that's projected to be $300 million this year, or how to avoid so much red ink in the future.

The fear most expressed by the audience and Democratic legislators was that this is the first step in reducing the number of patrols in the county dramatically, something Mangano and Dale say is not true. Whether 177 is the appropriate number of patrols needs to be decided based on efficiency and best practices, though, not simply on tradition.

This is the first step to a victory for Mangano and Dale. The executive still must persuade legislators to pass an incentive to get highly paid cops to retire, then get a supermajority to approve the bonding to pay for the buyouts. Dale, though, may have even bigger challenges.

The new commissioner must ensure that the precinct closures really don't erode public safety. He will likely have to find even more savings in his agency. And he has to restore the culture of a department besieged by allegations of improprieties by higher-ups and the disaster that was the now-closed crime lab.

Progress was made Monday, but there's plenty left to do.