From the outset, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s order that every police department in the state submit a reform plan in the wake of the George Floyd murder was an invitation to confrontation.
For many police officers and their most ardent supporters on Long Island, what happened to Floyd was a tragedy that justified an examination of local departments, but not necessarily overhauls of them. In Nassau County, Commissioner Patrick Ryder initially argued that the problems surfacing elsewhere didn't trouble his organization. Suffolk County's department and administration were more open to the process, but also felt police unions needed a seat at the table.
Activists saw it differently, often arguing that racism in law enforcement is systemic and must be addressed that way. While the absurd "Defund the Police" slogan was mostly a nonstarter here, reformers wanted groundbreaking changes, like using social workers rather than cops to answer mental health calls, creating a civilian complaint review board with subpoena power and fully implementing body cameras. In Suffolk, they did not want police unions at the table.
In Suffolk, after lengthy negotiations, the reform plan ended up in the middle, a common-sense place to start.
Now, more than a year after Floyd died, the path of reform in Suffolk is set. Some elements are similar to Nassau, including paying officers $3,000 per year to wear body cameras and using health professionals on emergency calls when their help is needed.
But the biggest change, and one that Nassau did not adopt, is having some form of civilian oversight. The Human Rights Council will have access to civilian complaints against police through a shared data portal. The council won’t have subpoena power or any role in discipline but will be able to review the department investigation before it is made public.
Racial inequities do exist in Suffolk’s department. Newsday investigations have shown minorities are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and prosecuted than whites, even with similar fact patterns. They're also less likely to get jobs as cops, even when they are just as qualified.
But the county is safe, and many residents want a strong police presence and one that treats people fairly.
What Suffolk County has managed is a good start. It also must be just the beginning, in the sense that what works must be supported and what fails must be improved. Data is key to that, and transparency, and this same spirit of compromise that supports both crime fighting and fairness toward all.
And a new plan won’t be enough.
It’s the culture of a police department, as much as its policies, that determines its success in serving all residents. In crafting these new rules Suffolk has talked the talk.
Now Suffolk is in the process of choosing a new commissioner to lead this effort, and make certain that the department walks the walk.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.