Why is The PBA So Afraid of Accountability?

Police separate a crowd of rally attendees and counter-protesters at a Back The Blue Demonstration at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow on July 25, 2020. Photo by Mira Lerner.

This letter to the editor was authored by Long Island United to Transform Policing & Community Safety coalition members Shoshana Hershkowitz, Terryl Dozier, and Kiana Abbady, with contributions from other members of the organization, which can be reached at [email protected] or facebook.com/LI.United

A recent article in the Long Island Press featuring Nassau and Suffolk PBA Presidents James McDermott and Noel DiGerolamo continues to perpetuate the false narrative being peddled by law enforcement.

The idea that people seeking accountability for law enforcement, a publicly funded service, is somehow a “war on police” is a perversion of what public service is supposed to be. They refer to lawmakers who have demanded reform and transparency as “radicalized by the unhinged left.” McDermott and DiGerolamo seem to misunderstand that law enforcement is not owed unquestioning fealty from the public. They work for and receive their mandate from the public, whose tax dollars — that includes taxes on everything from property to peanuts — fund their salaries and pensions. It is our right to demand answers and accountability for police violence and misconduct, including those that end in the death of unarmed civilians.

These two men then decry the repeal of a law that allowed police departments to shield disciplinary records from public scrutiny as an attack on their civil rights. The idea that misconduct can and should be hidden from the public they serve is ridiculous. 

McDermott and DiGerolamo stated that police officers are public servants. No public servant, elected or otherwise, should have the right to secrecy from their employer: The public.

We applaud all essential workers for their response during this pandemic. We are all in fear of bringing the virus home. But we hold our police to a higher standard, which is reflected by the fact that Nassau and Suffolk have the highest-paid police force in the country. We will accept nothing less than a police force that treats every human being, regardless of skin color or documented status, with equal respect and dignity. 

If McDermott and DiGerolamo want to paint their union as the manifestation of “heroism,” they should reflect more on their union’s associations. A recent Back The Blue rally on Long Island advertised by the PBA featured Ted Nugent, a known racist, sexist, and anti-Semite. It took a public outcry to remove Nugent from the rally, with a half-hearted excuse from the PBA regarding his invitation. If the police want to be faithful public servants of the people, they should stop associating with bigots. 

Recently, Long Island United to Transform Policing & Community Safety (LIUTPCS) has unveiled its coalition comprising more than 30 organizations representing thousands of Long Islanders. This coalition exists to empower our communities to demand accountability and justice while transforming the concept of public safety on LI. When police officers take their oath to “protect and serve,” they do so at the behest of the communities that they serve.

When police officers, even a few bad apples, harass and brutalize anyone in our communities, they bring dishonor to that badge and disavow the oath that they’ve taken. We should remember that a “few bad apples spoil the bunch.” Although only one officer received the brunt of charges, there were three officers present that did nothing to stop the alleged murder of the unarmed, non-threatening George Floyd. 

McDermott and DiGerolamo bring disservice not only to our the Island‘s residents but also to police on the force who recognize that racially discriminant policing practices are abhorrent. Police unions should support the officers who recognize there is a problem in policing and not enable those in their ranks who are convicted of crimes or have substantiated misconduct records. McDermott’s and DiGerolamo’s message of support to officers with such sordid pasts does more to discredit police than anything their fictional “unhinged left” could develop.

Instead, McDermott and DiGerolamo should recognize that it is the communities they serve that should decide what policing should look like. There is no need to maintain and protect an outdated system where police officers are looked upon as the remedy for every societal ill. That is a burden that the policing institution cannot carry.

When 911 dispatchers receive calls related to homelessness, substance abuse, or potential mental health crises, mental health practitioners and social workers trained in these areas should respond to the call, potentially with a police escort.

As society grapples with the complexities of non-violent emergencies, we must diversify the resources available to our 911 responders. A gun and a badge cannot stop substance abuse or a mental breakdown. In most cases, it escalates an already stressed situation and may even cost someone their life.

Instead of asking for fealty, police unions should come to the table, humbled by their flaws, and ready to make necessary changes with community input. 

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Members of Policing and Community Safety at a recent rally.

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