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Butler: Times have changed, so has NCPD

Nassau County police cars in Syosset on Dec.

Nassau County police cars in Syosset on Dec. 28, 2013. Photo Credit: Jim Staubitser

The overwhelming majority of Nassau County police officers are ethical, competent and dedicated. They serve with honor and decency. But that doesn't mean reform is not required.

To understand the changing culture of the Nassau County Police department -- including inadequate supervision, the impact of politics and the conduct of some officers in the past few years -- look at its evolution over the past generation.

When I joined the department in the 1970s, it was just beginning to require college. My academy class was filled with military veterans and bosses on the street were from the World War II and Korean War generation.

Essentially there were two types of police agencies. An enforcement-style department like the one in Los Angeles emphasized strict enforcement, arrests and using demonstrative force. By contrast, a more popular service department responded to citizen complaints, provided general peacekeeping, covered school crossings and issued tickets. The Nassau department was deeply service oriented and even created an ambulance corps.

Supervision by sergeants and lieutenants was generally close. A patrol supervisor met each officer on the tour, responded to calls and ensured prompt response.

The military background of many bosses established autocratic leadership. The desk lieutenant, patrol sergeant and even the commanding officer were accountable for the sins of subordinates. An officer who shot a cigarette machine while off-duty was swiftly fired. A highway patrolman who used the gas from a police canister for his private car was charged and terminated. An infamous barbecue with beer and prostitutes led to months -long suspensions. Those who fraternized or drank were quickly dismissed. Bosses in the station house, including the commanding officer, who didn't know of the party were transferred and careers seriously interrupted.

Through the years, the organization grew and we saw it get taller and taller -- moving the higher-ups away from the precincts. As the department gained height, it also got wider. Specialized management positions were created, further isolating the administrators.

The unions discovered the power of local politicians and began to change some things that needed changing and even some that didn't. Eventually the personnel numbers began to recede in the late 1980s but the bureaucracy remained intact. Nationally, police began to "militarize" and that moved the culture away from the service approach. A cop wearing a helmet, a vest and carrying an automatic rifle at a dramatic scene became common.

Supervision became sparse in the late 1980s and early 1990s as sergeants seemed less inclined to observe and train their subordinates. Patrol supervisors who reported to me often defended an errant cop. The disciplinary process stalled and "plea bargaining" arrived. Ultimately an arbitrator who was unaccountable for an officer's behavior would determine punishment.

Times have changed, often for the better, but we must never retreat from timeless principles. There are four: supervisors must be retrained in the principles of police management, supervision and accountability; the organization must be compressed by reducing its rank structure to bring the bosses closer to the street; disciplinary charges must be adjudicated with the utmost urgency; and NCPD should restore its eight precincts in a new configuration that has two precincts each reporting to a county quadrant command overseen by a well-trained captain or inspector. Nassau is geographically conducive to four major commands (quadrants with two precincts in each).

These reforms would begin NCPD's journey in a new and promising direction.

Michael J. Butler is a retired Nassau County police captain, a lawyer and a former adjunct professor of criminal justice at the Katharine Gibbs School.