Patrick Ryder is the Nassau County Police Commissioner and it’s a job he relishes. The son of Irish immigrants talks about his family and his strategies for keeping Nassau residents safe.
On January 4, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder began his 38th year in law enforcement. The leader of the nation’s 13th largest police force didn’t plan to stick around for so long, and in some ways, it feels like he’s just getting started given the ever-evolving nature of policing on Long Island and all over the country.
“I love people and I love service, though I did think at this stage I might be retired and sitting on a beach!” Ryder, the 58-year-old son of Irish immigrants from Dublin, told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
Ryder was appointed as Nassau County’s top cop in February of 2018 after serving as acting commissioner for several months. His rise up the NCPD’s ranks might never have happened if it wasn’t for his father Seamus, a persuasive and guiding force in Ryder’s life until his death from brain cancer at the age of 54.
Seamus and Kathleen Ryder were newly married when they arrived in New York Harbor on the Queen Elizabeth II in 1955 in pursuit of their American Dream. It was one year after the closure of Ellis Island but, Ryder says, his parents are recorded as having arrived there “and we have a stone at Ellis Island in their name,” he says.
The Ryders, like many newly arrived Irish, first settled in Queens. “My mother had a funny story. My father would tell her to always make rights wherever she went. Keep going right and she would be back to where she started. But one night she got confused and lost. My father got home and she was crying, saying she wanted to go home,” Ryder remembers.
The longing for Ireland eventually subsided and the family moved to Lynbrook on Long Island. Mrs. Ryder became pregnant with twin girls and eventually gave birth to six kids, Patrick being the eldest son.
Seamus Ryder was a painter and tradesman and wound up working for the village of Lynbrook. “He never had a pension, and my parents never owned a home. They had one car that we all shared,” Ryder says.
Family visits to Ireland were rare because of the expense and taking six kids all at once to meet their Irish cousins never happened.
“It was even too expensive to do a phone call at that time,” Ryder remembers. “It was very rare that my mother would go to see her family in Ireland. When she did she brought the two youngest of us.”
The Ryder kids knew how to sing the Irish National Anthem at a young age. “We were always very proud of our heritage, but importantly, we had to know how to sing the American anthem too. My parents were happy to be American and they made us feel the same way,” Ryder says.
Ryder had dreams of becoming a pro-baseball player and spent a year in Arizona trying to get signed to a Major League Baseball club or farm team, “but it didn’t work out so well,” he laughs.
So back he came to New York, where he began his policing career with the NYPD in 1984. The city was on the cusp of a violent crack epidemic and the streets were mean. Ryder was stationed in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, one of the most crime-ridden parts of the borough.
He stood out on day one, but not necessarily in the way he would have wanted. The rookie cop made his first arrest after just a few hours on the street when he saw a man beat a woman’s head against a curb.
“I pull the guy off and the plainclothes cops, they really took advantage of me,” Ryder laughs. “They said, ‘Hey kid, you want the collar?’ And I said, ‘Um, okay,’ not knowing how to even process it. So I got yelled at by the sergeant, the lieutenant, the desk officer.”
The main boss, one Ray Kelly, who was then captain of the precinct before eventually serving two terms as NYPD commissioner, was on his rookie’s side. “He tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Don’t worry kid, it will get better.’ I had great pleasure in telling him that story when I saw him again many years later,” Ryder says.
A couple of other career opportunities soon presented themselves. In July of 1986 Ryder was called for the Nassau County Police Department. “I was debating it and my father says, ‘No, you are taking it.’ I’m like 22, 23, he’s telling me what to do and I’m still listening! So I took it,” Ryder says.
Right around that time, Ryder was also chosen to enroll in the FDNY Academy. He had been a volunteer fireman in Lynbrook and he figured, with the flexible on-off schedule of a firefighter, he could do the job and also have a side business as a house painter. But Dad quickly put the kibosh on that plan too.
“My father said I could do a lot of things on my days off, but the quality of life for myself and the family I would eventually have is important. So he said, ‘You are not leaving the county police. Live out here, work out here, don’t worry about the painting,’” Ryder says.
“And that’s what I did. But you know, I still painted for a lot of years anyway! At that time it was all about trying to make another buck.”
Ryder fulfilled the wish of his parents for their children to grab the American ladder and keep climbing. He did marry – he and his wife, Jill, wed 30 years ago and have 21-year-old triplets, Sean, Meghan and Liam – and his career at the NCPD went from strength to strength.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran named Ryder to lead the force as commissioner in February of 2018 – he had been serving in an acting capacity for several months before. His goals are two-fold – protecting the citizens of Nassau and also looking after his officers who patrol the streets to keep residents safe.
Nassau County is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the safest community in America, with a 100 percent public safety rating. Ryder leads a force with 2,500 sworn officers and 1,500 civilian members. Working hand in hand with the communities they serve is vital, he says.
“The number everyone dials in Nassau is 911…that’s the police number, and they are trained to do everything. We are the true first responders. We get there before the fire departments, before the ambulance. We get there because we are out on patrol all the time.”
Policing has undergone many changes from when Ryder first put on a badge. One of the most critical came after the tragic death of a rookie NYPD officer in 1986 in the Rockaways.
Scott Gadell was shot in the back of his head while reloading his gun, which had a capacity of only six shots. The sophisticated weaponry accessed by criminals easily overwhelmed guns that police officers used, as Gadell’s death sadly proved.
“That changed policing right there,” Ryder says.
“We started to realize…I graduated the NYPD Academy, and I had a six-shot revolver and two drop-down pouches with two extra rounds. I had a pair of handcuffs at the time, and we had chemical mace.
“Today the officers get 40 calibers. They carry two extra clips with 15 rounds in each. They have their handcuffs, their pepper spray on their hip, they have a taser which we prefer they use before the weapon. They have a collapsible baton. They are better equipped because they are more challenged.”
Nassau County stats show that crime is down 30 percent over a 10-year period. During 2020 it dipped seven percent, an impressive number given the pandemic and the outrage that exploded nationally over the shocking death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May.
Ryder proudly notes that there were some 270 Black Lives Matter protests in Nassau County, none of which resulted in riots, looting or property damage. There were only 14 minor arrests. NCPD officers were told to do their jobs with one word in mind – de-escalate.
“I have a 60 percent police department with less than five years experience. That’s a very young force. But what you saw in the city during the protests – and I’m not knocking the city at all because I don’t believe all the articles in the papers – they said that there was no plan for the for the protests,” Ryder says.
“The plan we had, and that we told all our cops, was to engage the protestors in peaceful conversation. Try to ratchet things down. So when the protests started you would walk alongside, and you’d talk to someone, and if they said, ‘Hey, eff you, you racist pig,’ our officers were trained to just move along and talk to the next person.
“So that was our plan. And we did it very successfully. Protestors have a right to exercise their First Amendment, and we have a right to protect people in the county.”
Calls to defund the police are ridiculous, Ryder says. Such a policy would result in cuts to things like the Police Athletic League, community affairs outreach efforts and POP cops, or problem-oriented police.
“When you say defund the police those are the first things that go because they are not mandated,” Ryder says.
“There are now some people saying that we are too aggressive, that we do too many car stops, that we are picking on certain races, religions…and I get it. If we are not listening then we are never going to go in the right direction. I have the challenge to answer to the community. And I also have an obligation to protect the rights of my police officers.
“When they are wrong they are going to get called on the carpet. I get asked, ‘Why do you have no founded complaints of police brutality against your cops?’ And I say, ‘Because there are none.’ I am never going to apologize for good police work, well-trained police. And dedicated, respectful police officers. That’s what we have here in Nassau County.”
Ryder is a big believer in community outreach, and the first thing he did as commissioner was establish 19 local councils, representing each of Nassau’s legislative districts.
“Each council fairly represents the neighborhood – black, white, brown, Hispanic. We have a great crew,” Ryder says.
“I brief them on Covid, brief them on reforms and what we are doing in the county, and it goes over very well. It’s a good way for me to reach into the community.”
Speaking of Covid, it’s taken its toll on the NCPD. At the end of December 110 cops were in quarantine and 53 were confirmed positive. Over 500 cops have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.
But Ryder is hopeful of better days ahead, some of which will include a trip to Ireland. He last traveled there in the early 1990s, a year after he married. The trip was a delayed honeymoon, and his mother Kathleen was along as well.
Seamus Ryder had passed two weeks before the wedding, and the newlyweds nixed a planned trip to Hawaii. “So we went to Ireland and brought my mom to see her family. My wife and I toured the whole country. I had a blast,” Ryder says.
“I have a lot of first cousins there and six and seven aunts and uncles who are still alive. As soon as we can travel my wife wants to go to the Florida Keys and to Ireland.”
It turns out that Seamus Ryder gave his son some solid advice about pursuing a career as a Nassau County cop. How proud would he be of his eldest son?
“Oh, very,” Ryder says. “When I became a cop, especially out here, my father would drive to where I was working just to see me in the car and the uniform. So I’d say, ‘Dad, I just left the house in this uniform!’ And he’d go, ‘But I wanted to see you in the police car too!”