New York’s police privacy law has kept the public in the dark about acts of misconduct, even crimes, committed by police officers entrusted with safeguarding Long Island’s communities.

Officers have shot innocent people, falsified official reports, manipulated DWI arrests to increase overtime pay and lied to district attorneys and investigators.

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Erin Geismar

Occasionally an officer’s poor behavior bursts into public view, embarrassing the majority of officers who spend their careers serving honorably.

But far more often, serious misconduct stays hidden behind state Civil Rights Law 50-a, which makes any record used to judge an officer’s performance confidential. As a result, Long Island’s taxpayers are left to trust elected and police officials to provide proper oversight of some of the nation’s best-paid law enforcement officers.

That trust is unwarranted, a Newsday investigation has found.

Despite a series of high-profile misconduct cases in recent years, Long Island’s police face some of the weakest oversight in the country. New York is one of only six states that does not license police, and state lawmakers have ignored opportunities to pass tougher oversight laws.

Efforts to create independent civilian review boards — such as the one in New York City — have stalled on Long Island, and local lawmakers explicitly responsible for overseeing public safety have not publicly discussed police misconduct in years.

In an effort to penetrate the secrecy of the 50-a law and examine Long Island’s system for handling and responding to police misconduct cases, Newsday reviewed more than 900 lawsuits, 7,000 pages of county legislative transcripts, union agreements and 1,700 proposed state laws.

Newsday also obtained from the Suffolk Police Department 300 pages of records from misconduct cases from 2008 through 2013. The records — known within the department as teletypes — show the departmental charges against individual officers, whose names were redacted before Newsday received the records. The department documents also include a summary of the misconduct committed and, in most cases, the discipline administered.

The charges are brought by a department administrator, usually the police commissioner or chief of police, following an internal affairs investigation that results in findings of misconduct and a recommendation of charges.

Teletypes are widely circulated within police departments but are rarely seen by the public. A source later provided Newsday, on the condition of anonymity, hundreds of pages of teletypes that included some of the officers’ names. Newsday was able to identify additional officers through other public databases, court records and interviews with police.

The Nassau Police Department did not provide any such records in response to Newsday’s public records request.

In total, Newsday identified more than 200 officers linked to misconduct cases by departmental charges, jury verdicts or multiple court settlements. The total number of misconduct cases is unknown because the 50-a law makes a comprehensive accounting impossible.

Among the findings:

David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police oversight, said Newsday’s findings, particularly the number of officers still on the job after being dishonest, suggests “a systemic institutional problem.”

“The lack of transparency promotes that sort of thing,” Harris said. “If there is a culture within these agencies where people know they can do it, the lack of transparency allows them to get away with it.”

Local lawmakers have failed to address these issues.

Just in the past six months, Newsday published investigations that revealed findings in DiLeonardo’s off-duty shooting and beating of an unarmed cabdriver; that Southampton Town officials allowed a Southampton police lieutenant to avoid charges that he’d lied to investigators about his handling of an officer’s drug addiction; that two Suffolk officers severely beat a 19-year-old who later died from his injuries; and that Nassau County’s deadly force investigators have not found a police use of deadly force to be unjustified since at least 2006.

None of these issues, or any related to officer misconduct, were discussed in the county legislatures’ public safety committees, which can hold hearings and propose legislation as part of their role providing oversight of law enforcement.

Legis. Dennis Dunne (R-Levittown), chairman of Nassau’s public safety committee, said lawmakers would pass laws to address police misconduct issues if they became aware of a problem. But they can’t discuss specific cases because the 50-a law makes it illegal for them to do so, he said.

Legis. Dennis Dunne (R-Levittown), chairman of Nassau’s public safety committee, said the 50-a law prevents lawmakers from discussing police misconduct. (Howard Schnapp; Dec. 9, 2013)

“The police are a quasi-military organization,” Dunne said. “They have to police themselves so they can help keep us safe.”

Last week, Newsday presented some of its conclusions to 82 elected officials who represent Long Islanders, and also invited them to participate in a survey about police misconduct and related issues. Eighteen said there was a need for increased police oversight, including Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice. Three said there was no need for more oversight. The remaining 61 either did not answer or declined to comment, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

Before he was forced to resign last week for his role in a politically charged case, Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Dale declined Newsday’s request for an interview. Nassau County Acting Police Commissioner Victor Politi said Tuesday he “will dispense discipline to those who violate the department’s rules and regulations.”

Suffolk Police Commissioner Edward Webber did not respond to messages.

The two departments provided Newsday with figures showing they’ve conducted more than 1,150 internal affairs investigations combined since 2008. Citing the 50-a law, they declined to say how many of the charges were founded and also denied Newsday’s requests for civilian complaints.

This month, New York’s Committee on Open Government, a state body that issues recommendations on how to interpret the public records law, decided to call for the state Legislature to review the 50-a law. Committee executive director Robert Freeman said law enforcement agencies across the state use the provision to hide unflattering information.

“No state provides the kind of shield that exists in New York,” Freeman said. “The reality is that section 50-a has been asserted in situations that were never envisioned when it went into effect.”

Cases of misconduct

Newsday’s investigation found numerous examples of serious misconduct that often did not result in termination.

Brewington, a Hempstead civil rights attorney, has obtained millions of dollars in settlements or judgments for clients alleging misconduct by Long Island police officers. He calls officers like Raymond with a history of problems “repeat performers,” and said they make it easier for him to mount credible cases.

“The fact that someone is a repeat performer does make a difference,” Brewington said.

The shield

Lawmakers passed New York’s Freedom of Information law in 1974, opening government records across the state to the public in the name of transparent democracy.

But just two years later, lawmakers decided the law should not apply to police discipline. Lawmakers wanted to prevent criminal defense attorneys from attacking officers on the witness stand with allegations from their personnel files, documents filed with the bill show.

Records used to evaluate a police officer’s performance were only to be released with a judge’s ruling that they’re relevant to a case. Otherwise, the file is considered confidential — a protection most government employees don’t enjoy.

Law enforcement officials supported the bill, but others warned that it was too broad. The state Civil Service Commission said it was unnecessary, as did the state Division of Budget, which noted that the existing system already gave police departments several opportunities to ask judges to rule disciplinary files irrelevant to the cases before them.

Joseph Hoey, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District who prosecuted police corruption cases, called the proposal at the time “excessive and unwise.”

Today, Long Island’s law enforcement agencies use 50-a to deny requests for information about internal investigations or complaints against cops. Even when attorneys do get a judge’s ruling granting them access to a personnel file, that disclosure typically is made under a confidentiality stipulation.

Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo said the protections afforded to police by 50-a are necessary because police are compelled to testify when called into Internal Affairs.

“We have created this system whereas police officers are not afforded the rights of every other citizen in the nation,” DiGerolamo said. “They cannot take the Fifth Amendment like every other citizen.”

Nassau PBA president James Carver did not respond to calls for comment.

Newsday filed a lawsuit against the Nassau County Police Department this year seeking police records related to the Jo’Anna Bird murder, arguing that the department applies 50-a more broadly than the law allows. A confidential internal affairs report stemming from Bird’s death at the hands of her estranged ex-boyfriend could name as many as 22 Nassau officers who violated department rules, according to various officials who have seen the report. The county paid Bird’s family $7.7 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that officers had been negligent in enforcing an order of protection against the boyfriend.

Jo’Anna Bird with her children. Nassau County paid her family $7.7 million to settle a lawsuit alleging officers had been negligent in enforcing an order of protection against her boyfriend, who later killed her. (Handout)

Newsday’s lawsuit is pending.

Police misconduct records are open to the public in at least 27 states, according to the Committee on Open Government. In some, such as Florida, members of the public can request internal affairs investigations as soon as they’re concluded.

Freeman said his organization’s call to repeal 50-a has gotten little traction with lawmakers, who are wary of running afoul of New York’s influential police unions.

“The reality is the unions would oppose any change, and the unions are a hell of a lot stronger than the rest of us,” he said.

Political influence

Police unions and related groups have pumped almost $15 million into state, county and town political campaigns outside of New York City, according to a Newsday analysis of state campaign finance records since 1999. Nearly $5.5 million came from Long Island, where dues from six-figure police salaries come from more than 6,000 members.

“We’re not as big as other people,” DiGerolamo said of his union’s donations. “Obviously, there are a lot of other entities that are bigger contributors than the PBA.”

Police unions have given more than $100,000 each to Nassau and Suffolk County District Attorneys Rice and Thomas Spota, $119,000 to Suffolk County Executive Bellone and $98,000 to Mangano.

Rice, Spota, Bellone and Mangano did not respond to calls for comment.

Paul Sabatino, a municipal law expert whose 30 years of county government experience on Long Island includes stints as the former counsel to the Suffolk Legislature and Suffolk’s former chief deputy county executive, said the police unions have a “disproportionate amount of influence” over local politicians.

“It’s intimidating,” Sabatino said. “They raise a lot of money.”

As a result, elected officials “see the ability for a unified, across the board assault on their campaigns,” Sabatino said. “The perception is that unless you have the support of the law enforcement unions, you won’t be able to get elected.”

In Albany, state laws proposed to address misconduct or increase oversight have gone nowhere. One bill would have called on state troopers to investigate DiLeonardo’s shooting of the cabdriver the night it happened. Another would have given the state attorney general power to investigate police misconduct. Both failed, as have more than 50 attempts to increase oversight of police since 2009, according to a Newsday review of proposed state laws.

Long Island’s delegation has received nearly $1.4 million from police unions, including almost $350,000 to Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

Skelos spokesman Mark Hansen said there is no connection between campaign contributions from police unions and the inability of police oversight bills to make it through the legislature.

“Any bill is considered on its merits and any attempt to suggest otherwise is preposterous,” Hansen said.

‘He would be gone’

New York State agencies have the power to end careers for misconduct by barbers, chiropractors, security guards, interior designers and more than 70 other professions — but not police.

State records publicly available over the Internet show Bayside chiropractor Peter Kalkanis had his license to practice revoked in September after he was convicted of petty larceny, a misdemeanor.

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Meanwhile, Nassau Police Officer Craig Buonora pleaded guilty in 2005 to third-degree criminal perjury, a misdemeanor, after lying to a grand jury about finding a 9-mm pistol on the ground — evidence that was used to charge a suspect with criminal possession of a weapon, a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison.

“I thought I was helping the district attorney with her case,” Buonora told investigators.

Buonora remains a Nassau police officer, earning $135,076 in the most recent budget year. He declined to comment.

In Connecticut, Buonora would have faced a state review, with his career as a police officer there on the line. In Florida, his career would end automatically: The law there bans those convicted of perjury from being police officers.

Another beneficiary of this lax system is Nassau’s DiLeonardo, who internal affairs investigators recommended face 19 departmental charges — including felony assault, felony criminal use of a firearm and felony reckless endangerment — after shooting and beating cabdriver Thomas Moroughan in Huntington Station in 2011.

DiLeonardo is still a Nassau police officer. Newsday reported in June that the details of the case were hidden until a reporter discovered that confidential police documents had accidentally been included in the court file of the federal lawsuit Moroughan filed. Suffolk District Attorney Spota, whose investigators helped contradict DiLeonardo’s version of events in 2011, did not convene a grand jury into DiLeonardo’s actions until after Newsday published its story. The results of that grand jury investigation are unknown. Spota’s office did not respond to repeated messages requesting comment.

Cabdriver Thomas Moroughan, who was beaten and shot by an off-duty Nassau police officer, filed a federal lawsuit against the Nassau and Suffolk police departments, both counties and 18 named officers and supervisors. (James Carbone; Feb. 28, 2011)

DiLeonardo would no longer be on the job if he were an officer in Florida, said Glen Hopkins, bureau chief of standards at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Under Florida law, Nassau’s investigation into DiLeonardo would be forwarded to Hopkins’ bureau, where a board would review the case.

“The multiple counts that you’ve got there — he would be gone,” Hopkins said of DiLeonardo.

In Arizona, DiLeonardo’s case would have been reviewed as soon as the state became aware of it, said Lyle Mann, executive director the Arizona Peace Officer Standings and Training Board, made up of police, state officials and citizens.

Given the felony assault charge alone, “the board would probably revoke him,” Mann said.

Roger Goldman, a St. Louis University law professor and an expert on police licensing, estimates that 27,000 officers have lost their licenses across the country. Advocates for licensing acknowledge most states’ laws are imperfect. For example, nearly half of the 44 states that license can only revoke for a criminal conviction, Goldman said. But other states can strip officers’ licenses based on a lower standard of proof than required for a criminal prosecution and some can initiate their own investigations into problem officers.

Such a system does allow for oversight by an agency other than the officer’s department, which can be influenced by local political ties. And licensing is not tied to union contracts, Goldman said, making it particularly helpful in departments where restrictive contracts make it difficult to discipline officers.

The International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training recommends that states license police, said Michael Becar, the group’s executive director. The six states that don’t have any controls, like New York, seem to be “where the problems occur,” he said.

Arizona’s licensing board decertifies any officer caught driving drunk, lying to internal affairs investigators or shoplifting. Mann said the nature of police work makes it even more critical to hold officers accountable.

“The temptation surrounding a police officer is incredible, and yet their safeguard is themselves and supervision,” Mann said. “And the truth of the matter is, most officers are by themselves most of the time. There might be two of them together, but that just means you can talk about it before you do something stupid.”

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Local oversight also lax

Local elected officials have done little to exercise oversight over police and have negotiated away critical tools for discipline. In January 2007, Nassau County approved an agreement with the Police Benevolent Association that prohibits the county from using the GPS systems installed in patrol cars to check up on wayward officers.

“The county agrees not to use GPS technology of any kind to initiate discipline against any police officer, although it may be used for all other lawful (including evidentiary) purposes,” the agreement says.

The technology could allow department officials to catch officers who leave their zones, or those who park their car in one place and do no work, known as “cooping.”

An analysis of GPS records would have likely flagged Michael Tedesco, the Nassau police officer accused of spending more than 80 of his shifts with mistresses rather than working. The department only opened an investigation into Tedesco after a neighbor complained that his patrol car was parked in a driveway for hours at a time. Prosecutors brought a 109-count indictment against Tedesco in December 2012, charging him with tampering with public and business records and official misconduct. The case is pending.

Nassau Officer Michael Tedesco, accused of spending more than 80 of his shifts with mistresses rather than working, was indicted in December 2012 on charges of tampering with records and official misconduct. (Howard Schnapp; Dec. 14, 2012)

Tedesco’s case has been just one of many public embarrassments that could have prompted legislative scrutiny of misconduct.

Within nine days this summer, the public learned the details of the DiLeonardo shooting and that Suffolk Police Chief James Burke had allegedly punched a suspect accused of stealing items from his SUV. In addition, a state commission released a report stating that Daniel McDonnell’s 2011 death in custody — which came after officers shot him with a stun gun numerous times and pinned him to the floor as he yelled for his medication — was a “preventable” homicide.

Yet in the next meetings of the Nassau and Suffolk Public Safety committees, lawmakers mentioned none of the cases.

Nassau’s meeting lasted only seven minutes, which is not unusual. Since 2007, 80 percent of the committee’s meetings lasted less than half an hour. Half ended in less than 10 minutes.

Neither Nassau nor Suffolk’s committees have discussed police misconduct even once since 2007, a Newsday review of its minutes show.

The seven members of the Suffolk Public Safety committee received more than $125,000 combined from law enforcement groups and unions, Newsday’s analysis shows. Six of the seven members of Nassau's committee have received contributions totaling nearly $90,000.

Occasionally, legislators on Suffolk’s committee have had questions about incidents, committee chairwoman Kate Browning said. But those have been handled in executive session or in private meetings. The committee’s hands are often tied by lawsuits and union contracts, she said.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), chairwoman of Suffolk’s public safety committee, said her panel is constrained by lawsuits and union contracts. (Ed Betz; Dec. 12, 2013)

“We can voice our opinions, but we don’t have the authority to hire or fire,” she said. “We’re limited to what we can and cannot do on certain issues.”

Nassau chairman Dunne said lawmakers, in a 2012 vote, gave back to the police commissioner some disciplinary powers after surrendering them in the 2007 agreement with the police union. The change, which was backed by a state supreme court justice earlier this month, was prompted by the murder of Bird by her estranged boyfriend.

Dunne told Newsday that he trusts that Nassau Commissioner Dale has punished officers appropriately for misconduct. Less than a month after that interview, Mangano ousted Dale.

“Are we going to run roughshod over them and watch everything they do and be like the Gestapo?” Dunne asked at the time. “No, we’re not going to do that. That’s not what this country is about. If something so ridiculous comes up, of course we’ll take action.”

But, aside from the Bird case, nothing warranting attention from lawmakers has come up, Dunne said.

“If it has, it hasn’t been brought to my attention,” he said. “I’m sure I would’ve heard.”

Originally published December 18, 2013

Other stories in this series:
Beaten Unjustified Always Right The Southampton Tapes
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