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Getting policing right in Nassau County

Nassau PBA president James McDermott. Nassau County is

Nassau PBA president James McDermott. Nassau County is bargaining with some of its police unions. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Reforming the way the Nassau County Police Department fights crime and protects residents shouldn’t be a subject for contract negotiations between the county and its police unions.

Policing, when it comes to regulations and discipline, training and protocols, community relations and the treatment of suspects and victims, is a matter of regulation and law. It was a Nassau County case that went up to the state’s highest court that reaffirmed that discipline rests with the police commissioner, and that laws on policing supersede contracts. That’s why the effort by civil rights advocates and county legislators to postpone approval of a contract until a police reform plan drafted by the county is completed is misguided, although their urgency and determination about effecting change is important to the process.

Nassau’s union contracts ran out on the final day of 2017. Last year, the Detectives Association was the first to sign a deal County Executive Laura Curran prioritized because anomalies in how detective pay matched up to patrol salaries had cops avoiding the promotion. That detectives’ contract set a pattern, and last month the Superior Officers Association reached a similar deal: 8.5 years, moderate pay hikes, higher health care contributions and lower separation payout maximums going forward for most members.

The SOA contract also included two other crucial items: Members will wear body cameras in return for an annual stipend, and union leaders will support a declaration of need to push county legislators to support the refinancing of debt through the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, also included in the detectives contract. That borrowing is only thanks to the dire need that these contractual pay hikes deepen.

Police Benevolent Association leaders, who head the county’s largest cop union, were upset when the detectives inked a deal while the PBA was still warring with Curran. But COVID-19 changed things dramatically, thanks to a county deficit projected at $750 million over two years. Now members, currently voting on ratification, mostly see that they can’t scorn a reasonable deal while the county bleeds money.

Changing the policing of minority communities is urgent and the county seems to be taking it seriously under the leadership of Commissioner Patrick Ryder. Nassau has held meetings with stakeholders and residents, and the plan will be made public next month. That will be followed by a month of public comment, revisions, and submission of the plan to the state by March.

Cops need better training to overcome implicit bias. Their culture, which often puts the protection and solidarity of officers first, must improve. And they need to listen to the community’s impressions and complaints, not just dismiss them as misguided or untrue.

But these improvements have to be secured via departmental leaders and elected officials crafting the right rules, creating the right disciplinary model and implementing needed training. Ethical and unbiased policing is the nonnegotiable right of Nassau residents, and nonnegotiable rights cannot be secured in endlessly rebargained contracts.

— The editorial board