Suffolk County PD

A WHOLE NEW DEPARTMENT: The Suffolk County Police Department, whose rough-and-tumble reputation was exemplified by a former Police Chief who went to prison for beating up a handcuffed suspect who had broken into his SUV and then pressuring Detectives into lying under oath to cover it up, is getting an overhaul aimed at ending biased practices toward black and Latino residents while increasing accountability and transparency.

Suffolk County is the place where, when President Trump four years ago advised law-enforcement officers who used their hands to guide handcuffed suspects into patrol cars so they wouldn't bump their heads "to take the hand away," some cops in the audience laughed and applauded.

Less than a year before that, the former Chief of the Suffolk County Police Department, James Burke, was sentenced to 46 months in Federal prison for a string of abuses that began when he beat a petty thief for stealing a duffel bag containing sex toys and pornography from his SUV. Chief Burke subsequently obstructed justice by bullying Detectives under his command into perjuring themselves in court in an attempt to cover it up. 

The Suffolk District Attorney, Thomas Spota, who had been a mentor to Mr. Burke since the disgraced cop was a teenager, lost his job and was convicted of obstruction of justice in December 2019 after a Federal probe found he enabled the cover-up. He is awaiting sentencing.

Out of the Shadows

But a significant step toward purging the Suffolk P.D. of the less-appetizing aspects of its reputation came with the County Legislature voting 16-1 March 30 to adopt a reform plan meant to curb racial bias in the department and create greater transparency and accountability.

The changes will not include a Civilian Complaint Review Board, which some critics of the department had urged. Instead, the Suffolk Human Rights Commission has been tapped to review complaints about misconduct and bias lodged against officers. 

But the legislature unanimously approved a separate reform plan for the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office that will create an internal review board to evaluate use of force, and county police officers will have body-camera use expanded, according to Newsday.

Also adopted was an initiative now being tried as a pilot program in New York City to have mental-health professionals rather than police be the first to respond to some 911 calls.

'Historic Moment'

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who had once had close ties to DA Spota, called approval of the reform plan, which came in response to Governor Cuomo's demand for all departments statewide to present changes by April 1, "a historic moment." He said the plan "prioritizes transparency and accountability, changes the culture of policing in Suffolk County so that our communities have trust in those that are sworn to protect them, and brings us closer to dismantling the injustices that have existed within the system for far too long."

The plan also drew some praise from Suffolk Police Benevolent Association President Noel DiGerolamo, who served on the police-reform task force that came up with the recommendations.

Newsday quoted Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart telling legislators prior to the vote that it would mean "the hard work begins of implementing this, and getting the buy-in of the police department is key to this."

To Release Traffic-Stop Data

Among the key changes in the interest of unbiased enforcement will be the public release of traffic-stop data, to address complaints by black and Latino residents of being unfairly singled out—with a Newsday investigation having confirmed a wide disparity by raceand an end to cops searching vehicles based solely on a driver's consent rather than because of probable cause to suspect wrongdoing.

Those changes gathered momentum after an incident last month in which officers were captured on body cameras kicking an alleged auto-theft suspectan unpleasant reminder of the incident that led to Chief Burke's downfall. Both cops were suspended.

Police officers will now be required to provide motorists, pedestrians and cyclists with their names, law-enforcement agencies and the reason for any stops they make.

Cases of disturbances in which there is no perceived risk to either the public or the persons at the root of them will be referred to mental-health agencies rather than the police, with a crisis-hotline social worker assessing the calls and providing telephone counseling or transportation to a crisis center for those who need it. 

At the same time, more Suffolk officers will be trained in crisis-intervention techniques. Newsday reported that $1 million in funding for a mental-health crisis unit has been allocated as part of this initiative.

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