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WSHU's Charles Lane follows the different paths taken by Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island to undergo mandated police reform.

Frustration Builds For Police Reformers

Suffolk County police
Elvert Barnes

On Long Island, both Suffolk and Nassau County have been conducting state mandated reviews of their police departments. Both counties have formed task forces to study potential reforms and both counties have received mixed reactions.

Nassau County was recently sued by reformers who called the county's efforts thus far “a sham.” Suffolk County has just completed a series of listening sessions that I suspect still leave advocates of change frustrated.

Charles Lane, WSHU: Joining me now to discuss some of these issues is Tracey Edwards, Long Island regional director of the NAACP. Welcome, Tracey.

Tracey Edwards: Well, thank you very much for having me.

CL: So I use the word frustrated. Is there a better word to use?

TE: I think that's a good word. You know, I can't speak for everyone, but I can tell you that I am extremely frustrated.

CL: At what?

TE: Well, you know, the only way that you can truly fix a problem is you have to first acknowledge that there is one. And we are still at the point, I believe, that our elected officials have not yet acknowledged, publicly, maybe some privately, that racial disparities exist on Long Island.

So it's very difficult to actually partner and be at the table, when everyone is not aligned yet that there are problems with racial disparities on Long Island when it comes to policing.

CL: When I listen to the county executives, or the police commissioners talk, what I hear, I hear the phrase, I hear this phrase frequently, “we can do better.” But then often in the same breath, there's almost like a quick defense of the department and another phrase that I hear a lot is “we are the safest county in the country,” or “we have the most professional department in the country.”

From the perspective of a Black, Brown or low income Long Islander, what does that quick defense sound like to you?

TE: Well, I understand it, because when you own something, you are quick to defend the things that you do. But what would be helpful is that, in that defense, that could be a clear acknowledgment of what we can do better, you know, saying we can do better, is not really owning the fact that we have disparities by their own data in the minority and low income communities. You have to say what it is out loud, so that people hear what it is that we can do better at.

We have to have this completed. So we started late, and we are still at the “we-can-do-better” phrase, is not helpful. And it is frustrating that we are heading into January 2021. And we are still, you know, looking for data. You know, in terms of the Nassau piece. We are just starting subcommittees, you know, so we have a lot of work to do in a very short period of time. And then we can’t have officials that are representing the police officers still looking at, you know, illogical data and presenting it to the public like it's real. We need to be doing the business of working together collectively to make substantive progress on Long Island.

CL: OK, you're referring to two things here: you're referring to what you say is misleading data from Nassau County, and also the Suffolk PBA board member who makes these presentations purporting to show that there's no racism in policing, saying we're not racist.

TE: This is not about calling any individuals racists. This is about the data, their own data, both in Suffolk and Nassau, points out that there are racial disparities. There are minorities that are searched, they are searched as a individual, their vehicles are searched more often. They are asked to step out of the car more often. And the outcome is that they do not find any contraband. So if the data speaks volumes, then let's acknowledge that we have an issue and let's fix it.

CL: And what you're saying is, we're still — with a month left before we have to come up with the plan —there's still a lack of acknowledgement about the data.

TE: Correct.

CL: OK. In the run up to the election, the police unions were extremely vocal. And according to many Black and Brown people, their words were hurtful. I'm wondering if now you feel like you can reach a consensus with them.

TE: I do because you can be pro-police and still against police misconduct. And the way that you will be able to reach consensus, again, is not by emotion and rhetoric by following the data and the analysis. And that's how you can make progress because numbers don't lie.

Tracey Edwards is Long Island regional director of the NAACP.

Update 12/30/20

In response to the interview, Suffolk County Deputy County Executive Jason Elan issued this statement:

“Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Police Commissioner Gerri Hart announced publicly in October of this year that the county’s own publicly released traffic stop analysis found disparities in policing, which were unacceptable and would be addressed as part of the police reform task force mission.”

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.