Editorial: End wait for body cameras in Nassau County

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Video from police body cameras has provided Minneapolis prosecutors with powerful evidence against former Officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd.

The videos capture Minneapolis police as they confronted Floyd and Chauvin later placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, not stopping even when Floyd had no pulse. “Please! Please! Please!” Floyd screams between sobs. “Mama! Mama! Mama!”
“Mom, I love you,” he says at one point, and then: “Please. I can’t breathe.”

“His voice becomes quieter and quieter as he loses consciousness,” according to an account in The New York Times.

The evidence certainly tells a different story than what Minneapolis police said during a news conference held the night Floyd died when they described his death as a “medical incident.”

So consider this: if a similar incident took place in Nassau County, the body camera evidence would likely not exist.

Why?

Because Nassau County is one of the nation’s three largest police forces that do not widely equip their officers with body cameras. The reason given for not requiring body cameras by county departments and elected officials is the cost of implementation.

But this makes little sense in a county that spent nearly $900 million for its Police Department and more than $153 million for its Sheriff’s Department out of a $3.56 billion county budget in 2020. And whose officers are among the best compensated in the country. Not to mention the 47 other counties – most less affluent than Nassau – that have widely equipped their officers with body cameras.

County Republicans long ago formed an alliance in which police received those generous compensation packages and relatively lax supervision and GOP officials received campaign contributions and endorsements. The PBA’s giving has grown to include Democrats, but the GOP continues to receive the largest share of the union’s support.

In 2015, 22 police unions, including the Nassau County PBA, endorsed Republican district attorney candidate Kate Murray, who had zero experience as a prosecutor over Madeline Singas, a career prosecutor then serving as acting DA. Murray, now the Hempstead town clerk, called the endorsements “uniquely meaningful” because many of the members of the unions had known Singas for more than a decade.

And what was the reason given by the PBA?

Nassau County PBA President James Carver said Singas’ promotion of efforts to prosecute police officers in the county made it harder for him to believe the unions could establish a strong working relationship with her.

This is not a lone incident on Long Island.

In a speech in Suffolk County in 2017, President Donald Trump took a break from discussing gang violence and illegal immigration to give the law enforcement officers gathered for his remarks some advice on how to treat suspects.

“When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said in a Washington Post account, miming the physical motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car.

“Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head,” Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, OK?”

A group of uniform officers standing behind Trump applauded, and, when he turned to face them, some smiled and appeared to chuckle.

Suffolk County police quickly distanced the department from Trump’s comments, saying they would not accept this treatment of people in custody. But the Suffolk PBA, like New York City’s PBA, endorsed Trump in the 2020 election. Not exactly the message people concerned with the unequal treatment of Blacks wanted to hear.

A recent Newsday investigation of Nassau and Suffolk police also raised questions about whether the word of Suffolk and Nassau police could be trusted in arrest reports. In four cases in which the paper performed an in-depth investigation, it found civilian video captured scenes involving police officers and the people they arrested that contradicted what the police officers wrote in their arrest records.

“Based on the judgments of independent criminal justice experts, the findings include evidence that officers jailed citizens without cause and used unjustified force exposing taxpayers to lawsuit liabilities totaling more than $4.6 million so far,” Newsday reported.

Nassau Republican officials also leaped to the defense of police following the call for police reforms across the country led by Black Lives Matter following the release of a civilian’s video showing the murder of Floyd. They joined with New York City unions to support “Back the Blue” events to express support for the police.

“The Blue Ribbon campaign is in response to the attempt by extreme groups to vilify all
police for the actions of a tiny few,” Presiding Officer Rich Nicoello (R-New Hyde Park) said in an interview with Blank Slate Media. “It is intended to show our men and women in law enforcement that we as a county and community appreciate the professionalism, dedication and courage of the overwhelming majority of men and women in blue.”

We have previously noted that Nicolello has yet to acknowledge Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in which 140 police officers who displayed courage and professionalism were injured, one died and two others later committed suicide.

We would like to agree with Nicolello that “the overwhelming majority of men and women in blue” are dedicated professionals who show courage in carrying out their job.

But like President Reagan agreeing to a nuclear treaty with Russia, we want to trust and verify.

One obvious answer is body cameras. The adoption of the technology around the nation has shown the devices provide many benefits, including proof of police doing their jobs well. Or not. The cameras provide accountability for police and encourage good behavior, the same as the highway patrolman on a busy roadway. They also create greater confidence and support in communities where that does not often exist.

This, along with the removal of police who commit wrongdoing, would do more to support police than any Blue Ribbon campaign.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, has proposed the widespread use of body cameras in a reform plan sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and in a proposed contract with police. Incredibly, the contract called for police to receive an extra $3,000 for wearing body cameras. In the year 2021, body cameras are essential equipment for police like badges and guns and should not justify a stipend. But at least we appear headed in the right direction.

We do not fault the PBA for asking for the stipend or the outsize compensation packages officers have received over the years in a county that cannot afford them. The job of a union is to negotiate on behalf of its members and get the best deal possible – help we’d like to see more American workers have.

In Nassau as in other jurisdictions across the country, a legitimate question has been raised as to whether police unions have too much power. But ultimately it’s up to public officials, representing the best interests of county residents, to tell union members no when their demands are not justified or cannot be afforded. Or when they need to be subject to greater accountability.

It is long past time for Nassau County police to be wearing body cameras. For their sake and ours.

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