WE NEED YOUR HELP — Support your hometown newspaper by making a donation.

Long Beach Acting police commissioner wants ‘acting’ gone from his title

Posted

Phil Ragona, 57, has tossed his hat into the ring to become Long Beach’s permanent police commissioner, he said last week.

He has a head start. He already sits in the commissioner’s chair, at the commissioner’s desk — because he is currently the acting police commissioner. He has been with the Long Beach Police department for 34 years, serving as a sergeant and a lieutenant before retiring in 2013. He was rehired soon afterward to monitor activities on the beach, and was named acting commissioner on June 26 when Inspector Ed Ryan, who was also in an acting capacity as commissioner, retired.

The city has been seeking a permanent commissioner since the retirement in May of Michael Tangney, who was on the force for 42 years.

In an interview last week in his office at police headquarters, near City Hall, Ragona had a ready answer when asked why he has applied for the job of top cop. “There’s nothing more I’d love than to continue as commissioner,” he said. “I love this city.”

The job of overseeing the 62-member force pays about$175,000 a year.

City Council President John Bendo and Interim City Manager Donna Gayden have said they have received at least a dozen resumes from potential candidates — though they declined to disclose any of their names — and they hope to choose a new commissioner by the end of this month.

One name that has floated around the city is that of Charles Rubin, a deputy chief for school safety in the New York City Police Department. Responding to a question at a recent City Council meeting, members confirmed that Rubin has submitted his resume. He could not be reached for comment.

Ragona, who lives in Oceanside, grew up in Floral Park and attended Catholic schools as a youth, then studied politics and sociology at St. John’s University in Queens. He considers himself part sociologist and part police officer. “I’m probably the most moderate cop you will ever meet,” he said. “I can see both sides of things. As a police officer, you have to be a bit of a sociologist.”

Before joining the LBPD, Ragona was a caseworker at a men’s shelter in New York City and a state corrections officer.

One of his goals for the department is to enlarge it by adding five officers to the force, which he said the city budget would support. He would also like to add more people of color, and women. He noted with pride that it was under his command that the department promoted Alexandra Nielsen, 40, to the rank of sergeant, the first woman to serve in the post in the department’s 109-year history.

Ragona said he has seen many changes since he joined the force. Training is now more intensive, and technology is a greater tool than ever before. Chokeholds, he said, are forbidden. And he is an ardent supporter of community policing — having officers out on the street, talking to residents.

Relations between the police and Long Beach’s Black community, which makes up about 14 percent of the city’ 33,000 residents, are good, Ragona said. He pointed out that there had not been a single arrest or incident of violence in three demonstrations this spring after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Community policing works, he said, “if applied properly.” Long Beach is a diverse community, he added, but his responsibility is seeing to the safety of its residents.

“I don’t care what your W-2 says,” he said. “My job is to service you and make sure you’re safe.”

But Fred Brewington, legal adviser to the Martin Luther King Center, said, “There is a divide between Long Beach police and the people in North Park.”

Brewington said he had a lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn against the department and several of its officers, who he alleges beat a man named Ricky Joshua Benny outside a West End bar on Dec. 8, 2018. The suit alleges that Benny, then 27, who is Black and Latino, was a bystander when several white men got involved in a fight. Benny, according to the suit, began videotaping it, and officers identified as Joseph Wiemann, Rocco Walsh “and John Dos” body-slammed Benny onto the concrete, injuring his jaw, back and torso.

Benny was charged with resisting arrest, but the charges were dismissed in June 2019. The suit seeks monetary damages for his injuries. Early last month, the city filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but Brewington is fighting it. The officers could not be reached for comment.

“In North Park,” Brewington said, “when the cops come, people think it’s not going to be good.”

Crime overall in the city, Ragona said, is at an all-time low, with 148 arrests so far this year. About 30 percent of those arrests were related to domestic violence. He recalled the early 1980s, when the state released thousands of patients from mental hospitals and placed a number of them in Long Beach. There were incidents on the streets, he said, and perhaps as many as a thousand arrests every year for several years.

But a group of residents of the largely Black North Park said they believed relations between the police and the community could be better. Several sent a letter to the City Council, requesting the establishment of a Civilian Complaint Review Board. Ragona said he had seen the letter and discussed it with Gayden, and that he would research New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board before taking any further action.

He and North Park residents, Ragona said, were planning a forum to focus on ways to better understanding one another’s needs.