For Police Reformers, Union President Apology Didn't Go Far Enough

Jan 11, 2021

After the racial justice protests over the summer, both reformers and police unions were asked to sit at the same table and draft a plan for police reforms. In Suffolk County, Long Island, those meetings started with a confrontation and an apology from the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association (PBA).

  • Suffolk’s PBA President was asked to apologize for using the word “enemy” during a political rally.
  • Officials described the confrontation as a positive learning moment and that the PBA wouldn’t use "harmful" words in the future.
  • "Harmful" words continued; Suffolk PBA’s Treasurer referred to a Black man as a “predator.”
  • Despite the divide, most task force members want the PBA’s continued involvement in the meetings.

In October, at a “Back The Blue” political rally, president of Suffolk’s PBA, Noel DiGerolamo, praised President Trump and Republicans while railing against elected officials who passed a series of laws meant to reform policing.

“They made us the enemy. Well, guess what, they’re the enemy now,” he told the crowd.

That word — “enemy” — unsettled many people not at the rally.

In his speech, DiGerolamo referred to non-Republican elected officials, presumably Democrats, but many heard it as anyone who criticized the police was the enemy.

This made the first meetings of Suffolk’s police reform task force, ordered by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, tense.

“We confronted the union leader directly with that,” Suffolk Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman said. “He actually apologized at the task force meeting. He appreciates where people are coming from and he’ll try to be more circumspect in the future so that we thought was a very positive step.”

Kaiman said this to the Suffolk County African American Advisory Board. WSHU received a recording of the meeting.

Sorry, Not Sorry

Multiple members of the board expressed concern that this apology was insufficient, at which point Suffolk Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter stepped in to explain the cultural divide.

“So for people of color, if the police are saying you’re our enemy, we’re not necessarily on the same path and have the same relationship with police officers,” she said.

Baird-Streeter went on to give the conversation a positive spin. She described it as a learning moment.

“Before that I’m not exactly sure that he understood the hurt that people felt with the words. But for him to get to the point where that was not my intention and I’m sorry if you felt that was never what I wanted to come across,” she said.

Some task force members felt similar.

DiGerolamo’s use of the word “enemy” was a big deal. They texted each other ahead of the meeting, and at the meeting, almost all of the Black and Brown members expressed how they felt. After having been able to explain themselves, some said they felt better.

Others did not. In interviews, several called the apology a “non-apology” or “sorry, not sorry.”

In an interview, DiGerolamo described his apology this way.

“I make no apology for what I said. What I apologized for was if people took my words out of context and that they felt hurt by it because they didn’t understand the context,” DiGerolamo said.

The ‘Harmful’ Words Continued

Even though deputies to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone made assurances that the PBA would be more careful in its choice of words, as the meetings progressed, PBA officials continued offending Black and Brown people.

In one instance, Michael Simonelli, the PBA’s treasurer, emphasized the race of two men who were arrested as being Black and that they “must comply with the law” even though there was no racial aspect to the crime.

He went on to refer to a Black protest organizer, who Simonelli said served prison time for manslaughter, as a “predator.”

This comment drew a sharp rebuke from the NAACP and Suffolk’s Deputy Police Commissioner. Privately, several other task force members were insulted and upset that the insinuation was that Black people must “comply with the law.”

DiGerolamo defended the comments.

“When people try to twist this and make it as if he’s doing something that’s offensive to them, I think that in and of itself is offensive,” DiGerolamo said in an interview.

This offense is also mirrored by those pushing for criminal justice reform.

“The word ‘superpredator’ was created and used to harm Black young people,” said Serena Liguori, a task force member and executive director of New Hour, a nonprofit focused on helping incarcerated women.

“It’s concerning, and speaks to the deep correlation and connection to police unions and why we perpetrate violence in our community’s against people of color,” she said.

Despite this divide, Liguori and many other task force members interviewed said it was important to continue having the PBA represented in potential police reforms. Because without their buy-in, they say, nothing will change.