Editorial: A black eye for Riverhead PD

09/22/2011 3:52 AM |

Many of us this week saw or read about a 40-second surveillance video from 2007 showing what appears to be a Riverhead Town police officer pushing a handcuffed drug suspect against a wall and then repeatedly punching and kicking (or kneeing) the man in the hallway just outside Town Justice Court.

That suspect, who is now serving an upstate prison term on unrelated charges, later filed a federal lawsuit against the officer he says attacked him, alleging civil rights violations. The surveillance footage was released to Newsday this week by the man’s lawyer, and ran on RiverheadNewsReview.com and on Channel 12 News.

The public isn’t yet privy to what happened before or after that short snippet of video was taken. And a grand jury has already reviewed the case and decided not to pursue criminal charges against the veteran police officer. But a civil trial is now set to take place in Central Islip in November. No matter what the outcome, it’s clear from the video that the accused officer — never mind what provoked him to snap — acted more like a frat boy in a late-night brawl than what he’s supposed to be, one our town’s finest.

The officer in question was serving as a court officer at the time, and the alleged assault occurred in a public space within Riverhead police headquarters. After viewing this video, civilians will undoubtedly be left wondering: If this can happen with a camera rolling, in the middle of the work day, what can happen at night, when no one’s looking? It might be easy to imagine what set the officer off, but police are supposed to be better than the rest of us. They’re supposed to be highly trained in one crucial area: remaining calm under fire.

It’s hard to recommend a course of action for a department that undoubtedly tried to address what happened a long time ago. We’re confident the department brass handled the matter the best it could. Still, our police officers should be reminded that such transgressions, which often have a way of becoming exposed, make their jobs harder in the long run. Every day these officers, men and women, are expected to conduct the dangerous task of enforcing the law, which effectively means telling people how to behave. And behavior like this makes the police look hypocritical. Not only that, it fosters an increasing sense of fear and distrust between police officers and the people they are sworn to protect.

If what the police want is respect, using their fists and their feet is no way to get it.