A retired Nassau County police officer alleges that department Commissioner Patrick Ryder used a racial slur to describe a Black former member of the force during an off-duty tirade seven years ago, according to newly filed court papers.
Charles Volpe, the retired officer, said in a sworn deposition taken October 25th that in 2015, when Volpe was still on the force and Ryder was a sergeant, Ryder referred to then-police officer Dolores Sharpe as an “(expletive) N-word.”
Volpe said in the deposition that Ryder made the remark during an off-duty encounter three to four months after Sharpe’s March 2015 acquittal on criminal charges. That case arose from an altercation Sharpe had with Volpe, who is white, and another white police officer.
“I was stunned. I couldn't believe he said it,” Volpe said in the deposition, referring to the remark allegedly made by Ryder. The accusation surfaced last month in a court filing connected with a pending false arrest and discrimination lawsuit Sharpe filed against the county after her acquittal. The claim fuels new questions about racial climate on a force already grappling with concerns about racialized policing.
“I couldn't believe he (Ryder) said it, and before I could say anything he — he drove away. He was in his personal vehicle,” Volpe said in the deposition. Both Volpe and his lawyer declined comment for this story.
An attorney for the department denied Volpe’s claim and questioned the credibility of the retired officer. Volpe is enmeshed in unrelated litigation against the department.
“Commissioner Ryder and the county vehemently deny that Volpe is telling the truth,” Richard Zuckerman, one of the department’s lawyers, told Gothamist.
A Nassau County Police Department spokesperson declined an interview request citing Sharpe’s lawsuit.
In 2013, Sharpe was arrested by Volpe and another officer on charges of harassment and resisting arrest following a squabble over parking. The officers claimed that Sharpe, who was off-duty at the time, refused to show her police identification after telling them she was an officer, and swung a broken chain at them.
Sharpe’s criminal trial and subsequent exit from the force surfaced long-standing allegations of disparate treatment by county police in encounters with members of Black and brown communities – even when the person wears a badge.
Volpe’s deposition was taken by civil rights attorney Frederick Brewington, who represents Sharpe in her pending wrongful arrest and racial and sex discrimination lawsuit against Nassau County. Brewington called on Ryder to resign.
“We have a police commissioner, who himself should resign right now, based on his racial comments,” Brewington said. “These are things that need to be addressed, but Nassau County refuses to even look at them.”
Messages to Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman were not returned.
Race in the spotlight
Ryder has been called out before for racialized comments.
Last year, a group of civil rights, ex-police and police fraternal group members called on Ryder to resign after the commissioner attributed the lack of nonwhite police officers on the force to “broken homes” and “struggles in their neighborhood.”
Ryder’s comment was in response to a Newsday investigation that showed only 36 Black police officers had been hired from a pool of some 2,500 Black applicants in the six years following a previous hiring test used to create a pool of qualified candidates. The investigation showed that of some 3,390 Hispanic applicants from the same applicant pool, just 89 were hired.
Ryder quickly apologized for what he said.
Earlier this year, the department itself faced questions about racial disparities in the way its officers enforce the law following an unprecedented release of department data for arrest numbers, traffic stops, pat downs, and other police interactions. Among the findings: While just under half of the county’s population identifies as nonwhite – including Black, Latino, Asian and other residents – nonwhites account for a full two-thirds of people arrested by Nassau police.
At a later hearing, Ryder riled department critics when he told local lawmakers it was unfair to draw conclusions about the arrest data because 35% of those arrested came from outside the county.
“They're not part of the county of Nassau,” Ryder told lawmakers. “They came here to commit some kind of criminal act.“
In November, a review of court data by WSHU in collaboration with Gothamist raised additional questions about uneven enforcement. The review found that county police were arresting mostly Black and Latino drivers on felony charges – for driving with improper temporary tags – when, in other parts of New York, the infraction amounted to little more than a traffic violation.
After the report, the District Attorney’s Office ordered a review, and later a policy change: The office would no longer prosecute people on felony charges for the infraction and drivers would instead be issued tickets.
A $24 million claim
The new controversy represents continuing fallout from an arrest made nearly nine years ago.
Sharpe, who retired in 2015 after 20 years on the force, was off-duty and shopping in West Hempstead on November 29th, 2013, when she and the two county officers, Victor Gladitz and Volpe, got into an altercation over the placement of their respective vehicles.
It was sometime after Sharpe’s acquittal that Volpe said he had the encounter with Ryder. The case put the conduct of the arresting police officers under a spotlight as well. Brewington told reporters that Sharpe’s arrest and treatment by her fellow officers was “due to her color and race”.
Volpe said under oath that Ryder approached him in 2015 while both were off-duty, and Ryder blamed him for losing the criminal trial against Sharpe, who subsequently filed a $24 million lawsuit against the county.
“He actually said to me that, you know, it was my fault that she got off and that he was going to make sure that I — that I was going to pay for what had happened,” Volpe said in the deposition.
Later in the deposition, Volpe was asked if he reported Ryder’s use of the slur to the department. Volpe answered that he did not.
“I was basically in fear that if I reported it, retribution would follow,” Volpe said in the deposition.
Ryder, who was a sergeant at the time, would be promoted to assistant commissioner the following year. He was named acting commissioner in 2017, and confirmed as commissioner in 2018.
Volpe has his own lawsuit against Ryder claiming retaliation and violation of due process after a hand injury.
In his lawsuit, he claims that Ryder launched a harassment campaign against him, subjecting him to illegal searches and baseless criminal charges. A federal judge dismissed Volpe’s claims of retaliation, but the claim of illegal search is ongoing.
Court filings in Volpe’s lawsuit against Ryder indicate the department brought two criminal fraud charges against Volpe. An internal affairs investigation was also initiated against Volpe claiming that he was falsifying the hand injury.
Records in Volpe’s lawsuit against Ryder indicate that the department conducted surveillance on Volpe, including video cameras outside his home and monitoring his family’s online video game.
‘Right to know’
Vida Johnson, a law professor at Georgetown University who cataloged racist speech by police officers around the country, says the police commissioner sets the tone for the entire department, making his public and private utterances worthy of inquiry.
“If there's any question that he might harbor racial animus, this is something the public absolutely has every right to know,” Johnson said. “Because he's potentially influencing other officers on the force, he might be considering race in hiring. He's going to send a message, whether he means to or not, that using this kind of language is acceptable.”
Avlana Eisenberg, a Florida State Law professor who researches policing, says whether an officer is ever investigated and disciplined for using racist language is highly dependent on who’s making the allegation, why, and what proof they have.
Eisenberg adds that in instances of one person’s word against another’s, it’s usually the higher-ranking officer who has the advantage.
“These sorts of allegations do need to be taken seriously,” she said. “And I think it is very difficult when there isn't documentation, when it's truly one person's word against the other.”