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OpinionEditorial

Chilling behavior by Suffolk officers

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk County

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart hold a news conference in Hauppauge to discuss disciplinary actions against officers who allegedly kicked a handcuffed Christopher Cruz. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

It’s hard to say what’s more disturbing in the video of a handcuffed Christopher Cruz being pushed to the ground and kicked repeatedly by Suffolk County Police Department officers last week. The violent behavior by law enforcement officers is inexcusable, even if the suspect, minutes earlier, had rammed his stolen car into police vehicles trying to stop him. But the nonchalance of the other officers present, including a supervisor, is just as chilling. And the conduct of the one officer wearing a body camera, who turned his body and lens away from the violence and can be heard pointing out that his camera is running, is maddening.

The two officers seen assaulting Cruz in the video are suspended without pay, and targets of a criminal investigation. Three other officers and the supervisor who were present and did nothing to stop the misconduct have been placed on modified duty and could face discipline, according to County Executive Steve Bellone and Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, both of whom expressed shock and dismay at the video. That’s what should be done. But the Cruz incident is one of the first episodes of a possible abuse-of-force incident captured by a rare police body camera in Suffolk County and it only stokes fears that such incidents are not unusual.

Cruz, 30, is charged with grand larceny, assault, criminal mischief and resisting arrest. According to police, on Feb. 23 the homeless man stole a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee in Port Jefferson Station. Officers in an unmarked car allegedly saw Cruz driving into the parking lot of a gas station, and when officers in a marked cruiser arrived Cruz rammed a patrol car, injuring an officer, and drove off. Cruz then rammed into a snowbank, another police car and then another snowbank, before being arrested, injuring another officer as he was taken into custody.

That’s a terrifying and adrenaline-fueled situation for police officers, and it’s not surprising that tempers would run high. But the video released by the county shows a handcuffed and helpless Cruz being tripped and pushed over, then repeatedly kicked by two officers, as others looked on and said and did nothing to stop the assault. The attack on a man who no longer presented any danger was unjustified, the failure to stop that attack unacceptable.

So, too, is the fact that four years after the county first established a police body camera pilot program for the 10 members of the county’s drunken-driving enforcement team, the 2,300-member department has not significantly expanded that program.

Long Islanders are left to wonder how many such incidents don’t get filmed. They are left to wonder how many legitimate complaints from victims of police violence get no credence. And they are left to wonder when the Suffolk County Police Department will get the cameras on every officer and when the change in police culture necessary to stop this behavior will happen.

— The editorial board

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