In his 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action."
That’s the process Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo spurred in June with an executive order, issued after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to protests nationally and demands to reform policing in New York. It’s a process that the Nassau County Police Department must now undergo.
But the county is not yet fulfilling even the first two steps of King’s directive. Local activists brought into the process have been denied the information they need to assess to what extent racially biased policing is a problem, and the opportunity to have a voice in how those changes should come about.
King’s quotes can present a tug-of-war. Conservatives who deny the existence of systemic racism like to cite King’s most pacifist sayings to delegitimize protest. In response, advocates who know systemic racism is a plague hurl King’s most militant comments.
King was equally comfortable extolling the desirability of peace and explaining the necessity of protest, but his goal was justice via change, and his method was to take those four steps.
In that vein, Cuomo and state legislators passed laws last year reforming policing and adding transparency to police conduct complaints. The governor’s executive order, issued in conjunction with those reforms, required that the heads of local police agencies and stakeholders in the community together develop plans to eliminate racial inequities in policing, modernize policing strategies and better address the needs of communities of color.
Municipalities that don’t do so by April 1 risk losing state and federal funding. But the Nassau County process is flailing because police department leaders refuse to acknowledge any problem, and dismiss the pleas of community members trying to tell them racial profiling and biased policing happen in Nassau. They have also refused to let community activists like attorney Fred Brewington and Tracey Edwards, the Long Island regional director of the NAACP, and other members of two community advisory committees contribute to or even see an early draft of the plan.
Brewington says the data he has show Blacks are arrested in Nassau at a rate 5.3 times that of whites. He needs more information, but the department has provided little of what he has requested. Now, he and his allies, shut out from directly contributing to and commenting on the county’s unimpressive first draft before it was presented to the county legislature last week, are working on a "People’s Plan."
The politics of the Police Benevolent Association collective bargaining agreement, recently rejected by the union, are a further complication. And elections this fall for every county office and the clout of law enforcement union support and spending are also factors.
But with 10 weeks left until the state deadline, the county must work to include the perspective and recommendations of the activists to create a policing model for the future.
— The editorial board