Nassau County lawmaker proposed renaming the Nassau County Police Department Headquarters in Mineola in honor of the department’s first Black commissioner, William J. Willett.
The proposal marks the second time in a week that a resolution has been introduced in the legislature to rename a county building after a notable Black public servant. Nassau Legislator Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), presiding officer of the GOP-led county legislature, said Willett was a “trailblazer” and a “role model” for the department and the community, which is why he was chosen to name the headquarters after.
“He was a true leader and he was committed to the residents of this county, he was committed to his brothers and sisters in law enforcement and to this police department,” Nicolello told reporters during a news conference Thursday outside police headquarters. “He was the guy you would go to [in order] to get things done. So I cannot think of anyone better to name this building after.”
Last week, Nassau Legislator Josh Lafazan (D-Syosset) introduced his own legislation seeking to rename the county building at 240 Old Country Road in honor of the nation’s first Black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm. Both proposals come amidst national protests against systemic racism that have also played out on Long Island since May.
Willett, who was born in Glen Cove, first joined the department in 1953 as one of just a few Black officers working there. Over the course of his nearly 50-year career with the department, he held numerous different positions including as deputy chief of patrol, inspector, and deputy commissioner. Appointed commissioner in 2000, Willett retired in 2002 and passed away the following year after a battle with lung cancer at 71.
Joining Nicolello at Thursday’s press conference included members of Willett’s family, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, Town of Hempstead Senior Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, several legislators, and Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder. Ryder, who served as deputy commanding officer with the Asset Forfeiture Bureau while Willett was commissioner, called Willett a “true hero” who he learned from each day.
“I got to know him more as a person, and someone that I saw go through the ranks, and then go and lead us in this department in tough times,” Ryder said. “His leadership, many of things that he taught me then, I use those same things today.”
Ryder also announced that he would grant Willett the title of detective, the one position Willett never had but wanted, once the building is renamed. This was well-received by Willett’s daughter, Rachelle, who noted that her father, “loved his job, his people, his police officers, and his county.”
Curran, who called Willett a man of “unshakable integrity,” said she looked forward to signing the bill once it is voted on, which Nicolello said will take place in September. Nicolello also acknowledged that the bill’s passage would make the police headquarters building the first county building named for a Black figure, thereby eclipsing Lafazan’s Chisholm bill that has yet to be considered by the full legislature.
But as calls for change that go beyond the renaming of buildings continue to resonate among members of the community, William Biamonte, Democratic minority caucus chief of staff, said in a press release that “memorialization must not be a substitute for systemic change.”
Nassau County Legislator Carrié Solages (D-Elmont), who was not in attendance at the press conference, said he was “very happy” with the bill to honor Willett, but also urged Republican legislators to consider recent proposals by the minority caucus. Those include the creation of a third-party misconduct complaint hotline, studying alternative approaches to mental health responses by law enforcement, and the mandating the use of body cameras by officers.
“I’m very thankful to the majority for taking this very first important step,” Solages said. “And I’m asking them to also consider the legislation presented by my colleagues if they truly want to address systemic issues in the department and beyond for the benefit of all individuals.”