In Newsday’s two-year “Inside Internal Affairs” investigation into cover-ups of police misconduct on Long Island, former Suffolk County Police Department Inspector Michael Caldarelli said, “There are people who seem to feel that internal affairs should be functioning as an organ of defense . . . By definition, that’s corruption.”
Caldarelli, who spent two years on a stymied attempt to reform Suffolk’s Internal Affairs Bureau before being reassigned, knows it better than anyone.
Long Island residents were wronged by police officers in ways that included physical and sexual assault, drunken vehicular crashes, the protection of a violent stalker and confidential informant turned murderer, and the unprovoked and drunken off-duty shooting of a cabdriver. In response, brass, union leaders and internal affairs departments of both counties often manipulated investigations to produce expiation for officers rather than truth and justice for victims.
The stabbing of two Suffolk County officers last week by an apparently mentally ill man reminds us what a dangerous and important job policing is. We know poor policing, when discovered, results more often from mistakes than malice, particularly when officers confront dangerous or mentally ill subjects. And the reality of more than 5,000 police officers working on Long Island is that some poor cops will be hired and some good cops will make mistakes.
But “Inside Internal Affairs” isn’t about damage wrought by bad apples, though the series did explain the deaths of four people, and the serious and permanent injuries of four more, stemming directly from police misconduct. It’s about showing that the focus of law enforcement was on shielding cops by cloaking truths.
The victims include two mentally impaired men who died after they stopped breathing in separate struggles with Suffolk officers, who faced no significant discipline. They include a 2-year-old who suffered permanent injuries after an off-duty Suffolk officer drove drunkenly into his family’s car, then was not promptly breathalyzed. They include a woman sexually assaulted in a police precinct twice, by an officer whose crime was hidden by another officer falsifying prisoner logs.
Officers mostly faced little or no discipline in these cases, and were often shielded from criminal charges that should have been brought.
The continuing unwillingness of both county departments to disclose information in such cases, even after recent changes in state law that demand it, doesn’t engender hopes for improvement. Newsday was able to dig into these cases thanks largely to vocal victims and families and records from civil suits. Often, difficulties obtaining records led to long delays in exposing wrongdoing, which begs the question: How many such cases of police misconduct and ensuing cover-ups escape scrutiny?
A cop suspected of committing a crime has the same rights and privileges as a civilian accused of the same crime. A cop suspected of breaking departmental policy deserves no protection beyond the truth.
And the cure for a culture of corruption has to come from the top.
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.