By Anthony O'Reilly
There are certain days when all uniformed police officers in the Nassau County Police Department's Baldwin-based 1st Precinct are unable to respond to crimes for several hours, according to the Nassau County Police Benevolent Association. That's because, the union said, officers are busy making sure children cross the street safely on their way to and from school.
Police are posted near schools during drop-off and dismissal times because the county is short on crossing guards. "The unfortunate truth is that this situation puts the public in peril each and every day," PBA President James McDermott said at a news conference earlier this month. "These officers are prohibited from handling any calls, and all calls."
So far this year, officers in the 1st Precinct -- which, in addition to Baldwin, patrols East Meadow, North Merrick, North Bellmore, Uniondale, Roosevelt, South Hempstead and parts of Wantagh, Merrick and Bellmore -- have covered 4,176 school crossings, according to the union, more than any other command in Nassau. Countywide, the union said, officers have had to act as crossing guards at 14,784 intersections.
Officers are not allowed to leave their guard posts even if a crime is occurring nearby, according to the union.
Baldwinite Meta Mereday said she has seen the guard shortage hinder police investigations. A speeding driver almost hit her and a police officer who was working as a crossing guard on Grand Avenue, near William Street, about a year ago, she said. Because the officer had to stay at the crossing, he couldn't go after the driver, and had to call the incident in on his radio.
"We're not paying officers to be crossing guards," Mereday said. "They need to be going after the people who think Grand Avenue is the Grand Prix." Another incident occurred on April 9, McDermott said, when an investigation into an alleged gang-related stabbing in Roosevelt was delayed because 18 of the 1st Precinct's 22 squad cars were stationed at school crossings.
At almost every Baldwin Civic Association meeting, Mereday has encouraged residents to become crossing guards and help alleviate the precinct's workload -- often with little to no success.
"A few people have taken the signup forms, but not many have actually signed up," she said. "What they choose to do at that point is up to them." She doesn't blame people who might be reluctant to take the job, however. Five years ago, the county stopped hiring full-time crossing guards. Now the position is part-time, paying $17 an hour, with no benefits.
"We have more people who are looking for sustainable jobs," Mereday said. "They need to be paid, and they need to have benefits." According to Civil Service Employees Association Local 830, the union that represents crossing guards and other professions, there were once 350 full-time crossing guards across the county. That number is now at 144, and they work alongside 238 part-timers.
Jerry Laricchiuta, the CSEA Local 830 president, and McDermott said they have asked Curran and Ryder to solve the problem many times, and have now filed a labor grievance against the county because this use of officers violates union contract rules on minimum staffing.
Mereday said she hoped more people would sign up to be guards before a tragedy occurred. "Because then everyone is going to be in an uproar," she said. "This is about public safety."
A spokeswoman for Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Baldwin Democrat, did not respond to a call requesting comment as the Herald went to press.
Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said the department was trying to recruit new crossing guards, but few people are interested in the part-time position. "It's not from a lack of trying," he told reporters. "It's not from the county exec not wanting to hire. It's just at this time we just don't get people to take the job."
Union officials criticized Ryder's response. "Police officers' jobs are not to cross children," Laricchiuta said. "They fight crime. They enforce the law."
McDermott added, "Isn't that his job, then, to figure out a way to get them hired? That's a cop-out."