The integrity of Suffolk County’s law enforcement system has been immeasurably damaged over the past several years, highlighted by the arrest of the former chief of police on charges of civil rights violations and conspiracy, the trial of a police sergeant accused of stealing money from Hispanic motorists during traffic stops, and most recently, the revelation that a federal grand jury is investigating possible corruption in the district attorney’s office.
Undoubtedly, residents’ confidence in Suffolk’s criminal justice system has been shaken.
County residents wonder how this could happen. Our political system has failed: It lacks a credible framework to ensure that law enforcement can operate independently from partisan influences. In Suffolk County, for example, former Chief of Police James Burke was appointed by County Executive Steve Bellone with the recommendation of District Attorney Thomas Spota — all members of the same political party. Law enforcement unions have also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of the county’s elected officeholders; including those with oversight over their members’ agencies.
The federal Hatch Act, enacted by Congress in 1939, sought to prevent this type of pernicious political activity. Federal officials should consider expanding the Hatch Act to prevent political activity by law enforcement officers.
To restore the public’s confidence and try to curb the influence of politics in our criminal justice system, all elected county law enforcement officials and judges should be required to run for office in nonpartisan elections, which allow voters to select candidates based on experience and merits, not political party affiliation. This would better ensure that criminal justice-related public employees would not be beholden to political organizations or bosses.
Many Suffolk County residents understandably may lack the political will to seek change for fear that they may face reprisals for their outspokenness, especially when seeking to reform organizations with cultures of silence. This was exemplified in the federal indictment against former county police chief James Burke which exposed how officers were pressured by superiors to remain silent because they feared for their jobs, and the case of former Suffolk County court judge Stuart Namm, whose efforts to expose corruption in the criminal justice system led to his political demise 20-plus years ago.
Law enforcement has the unique ability to restrict individual liberty, and unless it is ethically managed, citizens and county employees affected by this culture could reasonably fear retribution if they come forth to report unethical or illegal behavior. Corruption is then left to fester.
Independent oversight of Suffolk County’s law enforcement is warranted based on recent events. While some have called for federal oversight, the public would be better served through ongoing reviews by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services of law enforcement agencies statewide. This should include uniform evaluations of how public and internal complaints are handled, and recommendations for corrective actions. Reinforcing a more ethical and accountable culture systemwide would go a long way to restore public trust.
Once the public loses confidence in law enforcement, society risks that certain individuals will take matters into their own hands and seek street justice, rather than turning to the legal system to resolve disputes.
Nonpartisan elections for law enforcement officeholders and state oversight would help sever the partisan ties that led to our current crisis, and must be a priority in the upcoming legislative session.
Vincent F. DeMarco is the Suffolk County sheriff.