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Editorial: Shine a light on police 'deadly force'

A Nassau County police car outside of the

A Nassau County police car outside of the 6th precincy in Manhasset. (Oct. 10, 2011) Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Newsday investigative story on Sunday brought to light an unsettling fact: In every one of the 46 instances since 2006 in which deadly force was used by a Nassau County Police Department officer, the department's Deadly Force Response Team concluded that the officer's use of that force was justified.

How often was that deadly force actually justified? There's no way to say, because a state law, 50-a, lets agencies keep hidden from the public the records that can be used to judge officers' performance.

The Deadly Force Response Team is required to make its findings within 24 hours of an incident. Deadly force usually involves use of a gun, but occasionally a car or other object. Often, when such force leads to an injury or death, the police homicide division and the district attorney's office also do separate investigations. In none of these 46 cases have those investigations reached conclusions or led to actions that publicly contradicted a Deadly Force Response Team conclusion.

If all of the uses of deadly force were actually justified, residents could rest easy. In at least a few cases, however, information later surfaced that made it appear almost certain that deadly force undertaken by an officer was not justified, and that the investigations were flawed. The most notable incident occurred in 2011, when off-duty Officer Anthony DiLeonardo, out drinking one night with another Nassau officer and two female companions, opened fire on unarmed cabdriver Thomas Moroughan in Huntington Station. Little has been released publicly about the case, but Newsday reported on various investigations conducted by both Nassau and Suffolk authorities. The Deadly Force Response Team report said Moroughan revved his Prius and drove it at DiLeonardo, who opened fire, striking Moroughan in the chest and arm. The report also said DiLeonardo was fit for duty that night.

But a hybrid engine in a Prius can't rev, DiLeonardo was drunk, and the subsequent investigations showed the conclusions of the Deadly Force Response Team were nonsense, meant to protect fellow officers.

In several other cases in which officers were cleared, testimony in civil court proceedings, along with hefty settlements by the county, have brought these affirmations of justified deadly force into question.

In how many of these 46 cases was deadly force justified? Who knows? In many cases, no information on what happened is released.

This week the Committee on Open Government, a state advisory group that works to make government more transparent, voted to draw the State Legislature's attention to 50-a, to push for a legislative effort to change the law.

With its 24-hour response time and its 46-0 record, Nassau's Deadly Force Response Team looks like a rubber stamp: Its role is not to evaluate an officer's use of deadly force, but simply to approve it. The homicide and district attorney's investigations may be detailed and objective, but since they are never made public, it's hard to say.

Other large police departments have better systems for assessing deadly force, including civilian review boards, prosecutors brought to scenes where deadly force is used, independent reviews, and rigorous internal reviews. Some or all of that might be helpful in Nassau. But until 50-a is repealed or amended to make the public privy to the details of police use of deadly force, it will be impossible to say what's needed, because we don't even know what happened.

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