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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.

There Were Listening Sessions, But Will Nassau Police Hear?

Law enforcement stops a driver.
Rich Pedroncelli
/
AP

After months of criticism for ignoring police reform advocates and holding controlled public input sessions, Nassau County held more open forums to discuss state-mandated police reforms. However, the county didn’t organize the sessions, didn’t advertise them and the community isn’t sure their input will be heard.

  • There were two English and one Spanish listening sessions spread over three weeks with a total of about 100 attendees.
  • The county’s involvement includes providing the Zoom account, printing fliers, and taking notes.
  • Nassau officials made no public mention of the listening sessions.
  • The sessions were more critical of police than what county officials have been exposed to so far.
  • Advocates pushed for officials to listen to the sessions and threatened legal action if serious police reforms aren’t enacted.

Tamika Cox is one of a handful of people who didn’t give up on Nassau County’s police reform groups. She’s frustrated, though.
“We learned the same way you guys did, so it was definitely a blow to us,” Cox said to about 30 Nassau residents who gathered for an online public input session.

Since October she had been volunteering hours a week, often after work, to help the county police department develop a state-mandated “reform and reinvention plan.” Ultimately, Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder presented his own draft that ignored many of Cox’s and others’ suggestions. Most of the reform group members quit in protest. But Cox wouldn’t.

“Because I felt it was very necessary to hear from the people. But we got to stop sugarcoating these things.”

So she pushed on. She and others helped organize three listening sessions, two in English and one in Spanish, with minimal help from the county. During one of those sessions she lashed out at those who aren’t taking this process seriously.

“Because it's bigger than that. There's real issues going on. And I can't stress it enough. I put on a protest from Roosevelt to Baldwin in 80 degrees. We walked three miles just so that they understand how serious we are in terms of them taking our young people's lives,” Cox said.

What The People Said

Much of the Spanish session focused on the disconnect between police and Spanish speakers. Gil Bernardino, who runs a non-profit for Hispanic youth, lamented the complete lack of bilingual police presence in the community, which he said has been an issue for a long time. 

“Hay una falta total de servicios bilingües con nuestra comunidad, prácticamente total. Es una cosa gravísima, que es histórica, y no es aceptable,” Gil Bernardino, who runs a non-profit for Hispanic youth, said.

Bernardino also blamed police for perpetuating systematic racism on Long Island, which was a much larger focus in the English sessions.

“We can't say everybody matters when statistical data shows that everybody don't matter,” said James Hodge, a prominent community leader in Long Beach. “We're not being treated equally.”

Hodge pointed to police data analyzed by reform groups that suggests Black Nassau residents are arrested more often than white residents.

Assistant Police Commissioner Marianela Casas, who attended only the Spanish session, said that much of the problems people have is not with Nassau Police, but the smaller village police departments such as Long Beach, Hempstead, and Lynbrook. She said her department works with those departments, but is not able to force them to comply. 

“Nosotros en Nassau Police trabajemos con ellos, pero no podemos obligarlos,” she said.

Limited County Involvement

The listening sessions were first talked about months ago when Ryder still attended the county’s reform groups. According to Cox and others, he stopped attending the meetings around November and made mention that he had already drafted a plan.

Cox and at least two other volunteers, including Milagros Vicente and Biena Depena, along with several county employees, continued to organize the listening sessions. They used a county Zoom account to hold the meetings and had a county department print flyers.

The county made no effort to advertise the sessions. Roughly a hundred people attended in total.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran’s office did not respond to several inquiries. Deputy County Executive Kyle Rose-Lauder attended two of the sessions.

What Will The County Hear?

Several elected officials or their aides attended the sessions. Vicente said Curran and Ryder were not invited, but notes would be provided to them. At least two of the sessions were recorded.

Hodge, the community leader, wants all county officials — especially those in the legislature — to listen to the recording.

“What they have been through, you can't put that on paper, you know, because people's imagination is different,” he said. “How many times are you going to put in the paper that everybody on this call kept mentioning the people's plan.”

The “people’s plan” is an alternative police reform document being drafted largely by those who resigned from Nassau’s reform groups. It’s expected to be presented to the Nassau County Legislature in the coming weeks.

One of those helping to draft the “people’s plan,” civil right’s attorney Amy Marion, said that the listening sessions should be documented because if lawmakers fail to enact serious police reforms, she and others would “be pursuing this in higher grounds.”

She later confirmed through chat that “higher grounds” could include legal action.

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.