James Jenkins doesn’t remember the faces of the Nassau County police detectives who strip searched him at the side of a residential street in 2018. He just remembers the bright lights of all the cop cars.
“Just imagine 10 people sitting there watching you naked, that you've never even seen before,” Jenkins said with a mix of laughter and tears.
They had just searched his friends for drugs during a car stop. When his friend tried to run, they tased him. He was taken away in an ambulance. Next, they turned their attention to Jenkins.
“The guy puts on gloves and literally drops my pants for me, spreads my legs, and tells me to cough,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins later sued the officers and the county for false arrest and excessive force. In 2021, a judge ruled in Jenkins’s favor, excoriating the officers in a 20-page ruling, saying they created false reports, lied in court, falsely arrested Jenkins, and that the public strip search amounted to excessive force. The judge took the exceptionally rare step of fining two of the officers a total of $30,000.
Yet despite this damning judgment, the incident was not investigated or found to have merit by Nassau’s internal affairs unit. In fact, over the last six years, not a single one of the 144 civilian complaints of false arrest and excessive force against Nassau police officers has ever been classified as “founded.”
“It's almost saying like James Jenkins didn't exist that night,” Jenkins said. “It’s saying when that happens again, it's just going to be swept under the rug.”
Zero 'founded' complaints, but dozens of judgements
Over the six years when Nassau reported zero “founded” civilian complaints for false arrest and excessive force, dozens of people like Jenkins won court judgments for claims of false arrest and excessive force.
Nassau police officials declined nine requests seeking comment for this article, including two in-person attempts where Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder rebuffed questions.
In total, from 2016 to 2021, there were 30 people who won court judgments against Nassau County Police for 41 allegations of false arrest and excessive force. In seven of these cases, a federal judge or jury decided that police falsely arrested or used excessive force. For 38 of the allegations, the Nassau County Attorney’s office paid money to settle the case while also barring the accuser from speaking publicly about the allegations.
‘Red flags’ were never investigated
“That to me is a screaming red flag that there's a problem with internal affairs,” said Bruce Barket, a former Nassau County prosecutor who now does criminal defense.
“It can't be that the county is settling dozens of cases for false arrest and excessive force and the police department doing internal affairs investigations can't find any of the allegations to be founded.”
Nassau officials wouldn’t say whether their internal affairs unit looks into cases where judges and juries find police misconduct. But Jenkins and several others who won judgments against the county said that Nassau’s internal affairs unit never reached out to them to investigate.
Police experts say this goes against best practices.
“There are these red flags that you as the policing leader are obligated to investigate,” said James Bueermann, a former police chief and now a senior fellow with the Center for Evidence Based Crime Policy.
“When the judge is accusing your officers of perjury, or is intensely criticizing their behavior, you'd want to absolutely know whether they violated policy, right?”
The U.S. Department of Justice guidebook for internal affairs recommends treating a civil lawsuit as a complaint. In statements, both Suffolk County police and the New York State Police said they investigate claims made in a civil lawsuit.
Barket, who represents both police before Nassau’s internal affairs and people alleging civil rights abuses by police, said he typically recommends that victims of police misconduct in Nassau not file complaints with internal affairs.
“We don’t ever go to IAB,” he said. “I don't think the police department cares. And that's a policy issue.”
Keith Taylor, a retired assistant NYPD commissioner who worked in internal affairs who is now a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, said when civil lawsuits aren’t accompanied by internal affairs investigations and discipline, police misconduct is likely to continue.
“That is because the money doesn't come out of their pocket,” Taylor said. “It doesn't come out of the department budget. There's no direct connection to the amount of money that got paid out and the department budget or the officer’s paycheck.”
Several national research studies support his claim that lawsuits don’t change bad cop behavior.
A third option for police oversight
Nassau Democrats last year asked for independent oversight of police, and asked state Attorney General Letitia James to open a local office to investigate police misconduct. James declined. But this year, her office opened the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigation Office and began investigating allegations of police misconduct statewide.
This gives people like Jenkins a third option besides complaining to the police department or suing. However, the attorney general’s office says its unit can’t make up for a lack of local police oversight. Those who’ve had frequent conversations with people involved in the unit say the office’s main function is to suggest changes to state law.
“They can conduct investigations, issue public reports, make recommendations to the state Legislature,” said Josh Parker, a staff attorney at NYU’s Policing Project. “The state Legislature has a vital role in enacting reforms before officers are truly held accountable for misconduct statewide.”
According to records, the attorney general is so far investigating 84 allegations against 14 Nassau County officers. That’s more than any other department in the state besides the NYPD – a department 14 times bigger. So far, none of the investigations in Nassau have concluded.
James Jenkins, the man who was wrongly strip searched in public, says the lawsuit he won against Nassau isn’t enough to change anything.
“I think there should have been more reprimanding,” he said. ”It was like a pat on the wrist almost.”