Suffolk County’s law enforcement community is second to none in terms of their dedication and professionalism. But their union leadership plays political games unworthy of the ideals of their rank-and-file police officers. And the one they just played with no less than 84 complaints pending in their department’s Internal Affairs unit merits our genuine concern.
In the wake of serious misconduct that led to the trial and conviction of Suffolk’s Chief of Department, now serving a jail sentence, the Suffolk County Legislature had to do something, anything, to restore their image of an “oversight” role as the county charter and state law require. But what they did hardly changed anything. They passed a bill directing the Suffolk PD to file quarterly reports with the legislature on progress with the PD’s handling of complaints of police misconduct. In other words, all too infrequently, the PD brass would self-report on how they were handling complaints on their own, away from any public scrutiny.
Complaints about police misconduct on the job occur in every police department. Private citizens are the usual source, but also fellow officers will send their own complaints through the chain of command. The truly serious ones end up in the department’s own Internal Affairs Unit, staffed by police officers of various ranks, with clerical support. They carefully investigate and hold hearings. Final decisions on complaint cases, with no appeals available for anyone, can result in all manner of penalties, including expulsion from the force, even referral to the county district attorney for criminal prosecution.
It was when the Suffolk PD’s deputy commissioner submitted and explained this first quarterly report to the legislature’s public safety committee last June 1st that things got dicey. But you had to look closely to notice it. The PD commissioner himself, running for county DA while staying on the job as commish, was notably absent. For reasons about to be explained, no doubt he wanted to be as far away from this committee meeting, and this first report’s public release, as possible.
Deep within the report is a hard to find section that mentions the dropping of 84 cases pending in the Internal Affairs. They were dropped at the end of last March because they were “old,” more than 18 months old, to be exact. And they were old because Internal Affairs didn’t finish with them. And the given reason is that Internal Affairs simply didn’t have enough staff to do it – a “manpower shortage,” to be exact.
From a broader perspective, consider that, in the course of their notorious, political games, politicians and police unions have made a habit of negotiating giveaway contracts. The ones currently in effect for Suffolk police cost so much that no one – but no one – knew, when they agreed to these labor contracts, how in hell to pay for them. And they still don’t know.
The county executive, a major player in bringing these contracts about, recently tried to float a bond (i.e. borrow) a whopping $60 million to pay only for the accumulated vacation time and sick leave which the contract allows for police retirees, but he dropped the idea, getting the hint when it’s mere mention sent lawmakers in flight like the release of pigeons.
Another feature of these Suffolk police contracts is that they cover several years longer than any before them. Of course, with all the financial and political bennies, the longer the term the better. But where Internal Affairs comes in is interesting: the contracts provide that Internal Affairs must investigate, hear and decide each misconduct case within 18 months of being filed, or else WHOOSH – the case goes away, and no one is any the wiser. Cases decided within this deadline never are open to the public anyway. In fact, Internal Affairs cases forever remain in the realm of the “unclear.”
What is clear is that the police commissioner, and not a front man, has a lot to explain. How did he, as commissioner, allow his department’s Internal Affairs Unit to operate for so long understaffed? What kind of priority does he give, or fail to give, to the investigation of serious police misconduct, at times complained of by other PD officers? Knowing the tumultuous state of affairs in which the Suffolk PD was reeling when he became commissioner, could he have seriously expected this unseemly shell game to go unnoticed? What exactly was the substance of these 84 erased complaint cases? What kind of pull, or push, do the targets of these erased cases wield?
Is this the leadership that police officers – the veterans, rookies and the cadets pursuing their dream careers – really deserve? Do we face the prospect of a future DA’s office that will play games with prosecutorial misconduct, evidence or witness tampering, investigative abuses, or worse?
And above all, is it merely coincidence that, shortly after these IA cases were allowed to disappear, this same police commissioner announced he was running for county DA, and in a matter of days, received the endorsement of the police unions, with all the campaign donations, phone banks, paid campaign advertisements, and literature “hits?” Should we question further, as so many already have, the ethics of his continuing in his job as commish while running as a major party candidate for the highest law enforcement office in Suffolk County? Aren’t there current Assistant DA’s under federal investigation? And why resounding silence from what appears to be a token DA candidate opponent?
And last but certainly not least, why has the legislature’s public safety committee, or any legislator for that matter, not asked these questions themselves? What kind of imbalances are we facing as citizens, and what’s in store for us after Election Day?