October 27th, 2021 • Spotlight
Spotlight on Nassau County Police Department
Jared Feuer, Executive Director of Faith & Blue had the opportunity to speak with Nassau County Police Department Commissioner Patrick Ryder and Lieutenant James Pettenato about why they continue to expand their participation in National Faith & Blue Weekend. What follows is their discussion.
Jared Feuer: Thank you for taking the time today and thank you to the Lieutenant. He’s just been an outstanding partner to work with. So to start, Commissioner Ryder, can you share why community engagement is a priority for your department?
Commissioner Ryder: I became a cop 38 years ago, and everything they taught me was tactical; how to keep myself alive and how to keep people alive. They didn’t talk to me about communities, they didn’t talk about cultures, they didn’t talk about diversity. And then you start to learn how important it is to have outreach. I have 2,500 cops – 13th largest police department in the country – but I have 1.4 million people out there. And they all need something from us eventually, right? Whether it’s a call for service or problem in the community. If I have relationships with the leaders in the communities, the points of light as we like to call them, then I can go to that point of light and say: Hey, I got a problem here and the community already trusts that person. They may not trust me. And he or she gives me the credibility. Problem Oriented Policing puts officers in ever precinct to connect with people. But when they do cuts, they always cut programs that are considered “extra.” So POP got cut over the years – but I now have four in every precinct, it used to be only one; Community Affairs was down to about six or seven, it’s now back over 20. We put our resources into our community engagement programs. I tell people, it’s like the spider with all the legs coming down, right? You got to touch everybody. So if we reach out, we build better communities, we build trust, we do better policing. It makes our lives easier if we put the work in now.
Jared Feuer: Makes sense. I’m wondering if you could give me your assessment of how you feel policing has changed. You’ve been in law enforcement for a distinguished period of time. I’m wondering where you’ve seen things start to shift?
Commissioner Ryder: When I worked in the 80s when crime was through the roof, we brought it down. Stop, question, possibly frisk was being used but we should have adjusted it sooner. We should have adjusted it towards community outreach. So now what policing has done in the last five years, especially in the last two years, has been reform and bias trainings, bias awareness, training, de-escalation, using what we call “Verbal Judo,” you know, it’s no longer pull your gun out, you will know where your weapon is, if you need it, but you got to calmly use the gift that God gave you, your mouth, and speak to bring it down. If we both come down, it’s a lot easier to deal with.
Jared Feuer: A big component of Faith and Blue is involving houses of worship in the work and conversations around public safety. If I’m a religious leader, you know, with a church or synagogue or mosque, what should I be looking to do? What contribution should I be looking to make to public safety?
Commissioner Ryder: Well, it’s a contribution we should both be making, right? Look, I’m a pretty faithful guy. I’m Catholic. But I sometimes say when I speak in a temple or in a mosque that I think I’m ready to convert now because I spend so much time here. I have a statue on my desk that’s over here. It’s the statue of the police officer with the little boy; it’s a famous statue. On it is wrapped rosary beads and crosses, and gifts of religious items that I have gotten. I have a rabbi that goes and visits the Pope and he came back with a cross that is there. And that comes from the man of the Jewish faith. So he respects me, I respect his faith. Same with the Muslim community. When I went to speak to them one time, I told them, listen, I gotta get out early since it happens to be my birthday. They actually had a cake for me! The idea of it is that the way you pray, or the color of your skin, or how you choose your gender, that doesn’t affect me as police. If I’m keeping you safe and you feel safe, then I know I’m doing my job. We’re here to protect and serve to make sure that everybody can go worship in their house of worship and feel comfortable and be safe.
Jared Feuer: Can you share with me what you hope will result from being a part of National Faith and Blue Weekend?
Commissioner Ryder: I’m going to go a little gospel here. So in the Gospel Jesus says to the Disciples, go ahead on the boat, I will catch up to you, I’m going to stay here and pray. And then he comes, they’re out paddling in a boat, and Jesus walks out on the water. And Peter steps out of the boat and has faith and walks. And then the wind kicked up and the storm started moving in. The Whitecaps kept coming in. He let fear overtake his faith, and the fears caused him to sink. Jesus reaches out and pulls him from the water and saves him. That’s the point of faith; not fear. I say it all the time. We were so caught up in what’s COVID going to do to us? What’s the unrest going to do to us? What’s reforms going to do? What’s crime going to do? And we lose faith. I hope that communities understand that law enforcement is their friend. Law enforcement is not the enemy. We are not against the public. You know, we got bad cops. Yes, we got cops that make mistakes. Yes, some intentional, some just accidental. But we got to take a moment to catch our breath. Have faith in the system and not let fear take over. Because when fear takes over, we start to lose trust amongst each other. And then we can’t do our jobs.
Jared Feuer: The last question I have is if there was a moment in your policing career where you realized how important community engagement was?
Commissioner Ryder: I go back to the first day I was a cop. I’m in the Crown Heights, probably the most divided community back then; Orthodox Jewish on one side of the street, African American, mostly Caribbean on the other side. And I walked out of the station on my first patrol and I hit the main street of Nostrand Avenue and it’s a Friday night in the summer, and it’s about six o’clock at night. And thousands of people are out and I’m getting nervous. This white kid from Long Island who’s never seen that cultural diversity before. And I walk up the street and I stand in front of a phone booth, and I put a dime in and dialed my father. My father answered and I said to him that I don’t know if this job is for me. And he said “Where are you six o’clock on a Friday night if you’re not working?” And I said probably at a local bar or someone’s backyard having a burger and a beer. And he said, okay, look around. They’re out enjoying each other’s company. My father, being an immigrant, he says: You got to adjust who you are, you got to understand it. That’s their community, right? And they’re doing nothing wrong, absolutely nothing wrong. It’s just that I’d never seen it before. My father said to put myself into their position. So like I said, I have some of the greatest friendships that I’ve forged now, with black clergy, imams, priests, reverends, and because of that, we have faith in each other, and we’re able to work out our problems.
Jared Feuer: Thank you. You’re a good storyteller! Are there any other thoughts that you would like to share?
Commissioner Ryder: I heard my County Executive Laura Curran state the other day, let’s just take a breath, alright? 60% of my force has less than five years on the job. They’re kids, right? They are inclusive, they’re fair. They like the community aspect of policing. They weren’t taught only tactical. They interact with the public, they accept all, and because of that we’re able to police well. Look, the George Floyd situation destroyed policing in this country. But George Floyd actually also helped policing in this country. Our tree got shaken. Some of the bad stuff fell out, and we said, Hey, we got to fix this, we got to do better at this. And that’s what we intend to do. So have faith in your police. If we have faith in our communities, and together, we will get better. And hopefully, like I said, we keep our country safe, we keep our residents safe. And especially when they go to prayer services, whether it’s Friday, Saturday or Sunday. We’re there for you, and we’ll support you.
Jared Feuer: Thank you. So Lieutenant, Nassau was a big participant in Faith and Blue last year. Are there any lessons that you took from last year that you’re taking into this year? You know, and related to that, for those who are organizing activities for the first time, what would you suggest they take into consideration?
Lieutenant Pettenato: I think it’d be best to approach it as what does the police department have to offer, whether it be units, demonstrations, giveaways, educational, even something simple but important like bike safety or school bus safety. You could also work with elected officials, sometimes they have a budget for community engagement. This year, thankfully, we had a lot more time to prepare. And we’ll be doing events both days this year, Saturday and Sunday. And the benefit of having Sunday is that we can work with synagogues. So this year we’re going to dedicate Sunday to our Jewish houses of worship. And we’ll be down in the Five Towns area working with a rabbi and his beautiful synagogue. So with the additional time we have to plan we are expanding what we offered for last years Faith & Blue Weekend. It’s all about having the right people in place and selling the importance of the events and the concept of police and houses of worship partnering with one another. It’s an easy sell though, it’s all positive, everyone benefits from the partnerships and the relationship will be there all year, not just the weekend.
Jared Feuer: How did you select your activities?
Lieutenant Pettenato: Well last year we thought why don’t we take the most popular aspects of the police department, which is the canine dogs and horses, or ESU since they have special ladders, special equipment, and other cool police gadgets. So all of the units can do something educational while also putting on a cool show. And then of course, we have giveaways, generous vendors donating food and drinks for the attendees. Last year the church had a DJ and said why don’t you make this an annual large-scale event that can build upon and make it grow each year. This year I think it’s going to be much, much better. And I’m thankful we’re participating both days, giving more people an opportunity. We’re spread out throughout the county giving more people the opportunity to participate and diversifying the faiths involved.
Jared Feuer: Two more questions. You started as a beat level officer so I’m wondering if there was an experience for you that indicated why community engagement was important?
Lieutenant Pettenato: Okay. Sure. Well actually last summer, I was still on patrol and like most police departments, we had our share of protests, peaceful protests. I was working them again, just to make sure everyone stayed safe. When they first started walking, there was a little bit of tension, maybe they didn’t want you anywhere near them, they didn’t want to talk to you. But then, you know, you’re walking sometimes up to six miles. By the time you got to the second, third, fourth mile, though, the protestors start talking to you, and you just start learning from each other and communicating. And by the time the protest/march is over, you’re getting thanked for being there and letting them say what they needed to say and just for being there keeping everyone safe. I believe the protestors realized that while they are protesting law enforcement, law enforcement is still here, not to stop me, but to keep me safe and to allow me to say what I need to say. At the end of their protests, I can’t say we’re friends, but we’re much more friendly and I think all involved parties learned from one another.
Jared Feuer: Are there any other thoughts that you would like to share?
Lieutenant Pettenato: I have the privilege of working in Community Affairs with great supervisors and police officers and we have the full support of Commissioner Ryder and the Nassau County Executive Laura Curran. I have an amazing diverse group of cops that do recruitment, and the opportunity to get into the community with organized event helps with their efforts, especially as the Department continues to diversify its workforce. Events like Faith & Blue Weekend are mutually beneficial. I hope the community realizes that, hey, the police department has a lot to offer not just what they see in the movies and TV, but so much more. And the public gets to see how community-orientated the Nassau County Police Department is. Commissioner Ryder rarely says no to community requests so he keeps us busy! We do trainings on bike safety, senior citizen scams, internet safety. We have a large 300-person youth program called the Explorer Program which continues to grow and strive. The program is all about community service and the young people learning about a career in law enforcement. We are nationally ranked #1 in drill for the last 11 consecutive years. Additionally, we have officers that are specially trained and certified in the GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training) program; these officers are actually in the schools as part of the daily curriculum, basically teaching kids on gangs, gang identification, drugs, drug resistance, decision making, goal setting, etc. And we also have another successful program called Youth and Police Initiative (YPI) which involves 12 young people that have either been arrested or have verbalized anti-police sentiments. These young people are selected by schools or community centers and then they are paired up with police officers that patrol the same neighborhood young people live in. Over the course of the program, they do roleplay where the young people get to be police officers and the officers get to be civilians. And they have different interactions. They watch viral videos of police interactions, and the young people are able to give their perspective of what’s happening. And then the police officers are able to give his or her perspective of what’s happening. So it’s mutual learning from one another. And then part of the program is you get to eat a meal together each session. It is relaxed environment where almost no topic of conversation is off the table. So they form a really deep bond. And we’ve had a huge success with YPI. And at the end of the program, the young adults and the officers exchange email addresses and they actually have stayed in touch. After the program is over, program participants got together and played basketball together. And another time because of COVID they played video games online together. So even though the program is over, the relationship isn’t. And they can stay in touch with those officers. Officers even went to several young adults high school graduation, we sent the officers from the program. Anything from training, youth programs or community programs, spending time with community leaders; personally, in my current position as deputy commanding officer of Community Affairs I represent the Department in all the various communities throughout the county and try to address the needs of the community or at least bring those needs to the attention of the proper people in the Department. And as you can see Commissioner Ryder is extremely pro-community and pro-service-oriented policing and he never says no to anything I request of him, thankfully. So that really gives me freedom to do a lot of good for the residents. So I am lucky to be in my position and to work with the community everyday. I grew up in Nassau County and still live here so it is an honor to get to work in the capacity I do – as a small part of the large effort to focus on our diverse communities and how to best serve the residents in the ever-changing world of policing.
Jared Feuer: Thank you.