Police Trailblazer Is Memorialized


Headquarters named after Commissioner William Willett

William J. Willett was the first black police commissioner on Long Island. (Courtesy of the Nassau County Police Department)

William J. Willett Jr. (1931-2003) was the Jackie Robinson of the Nassau County Police Department. No, he wasn’t the first black patrolman; there were at least 16 on the force when he was hired in 1953. All had joined since 1946. But he faced personal and professional obstacles that were unique as he rose through the ranks, each promotion making him the first African American in the department to hold that position.

Having grown up in an integrated Glen Cove neighborhood where the color of one’s skin wasn’t an issue, Willett discovered prejudice in the Jim Crow South when he joined the Navy in 1949 and was sent to Memphis, TN, for training.

After finishing his service, Willett was working at an automobile dealership and unsure of his career path when he decided to take the police entrance exam. He soon began what turned out to be a 49-year career.

He was one of the few blacks assigned to patrol white neighborhoods, and felt the lash of racism then. Later, in the turbulent year of 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King set black neighborhoods across the nation’s cities ablaze with protests, he had to face angry African Americans in his own New Cassel area of Westbury. It was reported that there were threats to burn down his house and he had to send his family to live with a sister in Hempstead.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder join family and friends of William J. Willett in front of the police headquarters named after him. His widow Flo is in the second row, middle. (Courtesy of the Nassau County Police Department)

News reports from that time indicate that Willett managed to win the trust of minority communities who were suspicious of police authority and navigated the delicate balance representing the community as well as the department.

Tragedy shadowed his life after he married Florette in 1957 and moved to Westbury. Three of his seven children and one grandchild preceded him in death, and a daughter was left blind and paralyzed in an accident. In an interview he said he turned to his Catholic faith to help him cope with his Job-like travails. His last year was clouded by the lung cancer that would eventually take his life and an unprecedented delay in getting his severance pay that causes him great anxiety and distress.

Willett, who spent most of his early years in the Fifth Precinct, was promoted to sergeant in June 1961. Then in succession came detective sergeant, lieutenant (1966), detective lieutenant, captain (1969) detective captain, deputy inspector (1972), inspector 1976), deputy chief (1979), assistant chief, chief of patrol (1982). chief of management services (1985), chief of support (1986), acting chief of operations (now named chief of patrol, 1991), second deputy commissioner (1992) and first deputy commissioner (1994).

In 1992, Willett was one of three higher-ups in the running to be named commissioner, but then-County Executive Tom Gulotta opted for Donald Kane. After Kane’s retirement, Gulotta went with Willett and he was confirmed in March, 2000. He served until retirement in June, 2002. He faced great challenges in taking over the department, tasked with cutting the budget and personnel.

Willett earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Nassau Community College and graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA.

On September, 2020, the Nassau County Legislature unanimously passed and County Executive Laura Curran signed a bill to rename the NCPD headquarters in his honor.

Enshrined In Eternity

Dozens gathered on a closed 15th St. in Mineola between the police headquarters and the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building to honor Willett with pomp, speeches and a sign unveiling on May 11.

Florette (Flo) and William Willett in their later years. (Westbury Times archive)

Police officer Terrence Heller served as emcee while department Chaplain Robert Harris invoked “God’s presence” on the ceremony.

“He had a sterling reputation,” praised Curran. “It’s a very fitting way to kick off National Police Week, a time to recognize police officers. There is a proud legacy of law enforcement here in the county. Today, we are honoring a man who was integral to that. And integral to what make this police department what it is today.”

Curran mentioned running into a retired police officer, “He didn’t know we were doing this. Doesn’t even live in Nassau anymore. He brought up, ‘Willett? He was a great commissioner. Always fair. Always such integrity.’ This is how people speak about him. He had a real reputation for fairness and compassion and for true leadership,” she said.

She added, “He spent a long part of his career in the Community Relations Bureau and helped enshrine our strong culture of community policing—I always say it’s part of our DNA. He really embodied that aspect. Loyalty, integrity, fairness, excellence to all of the communities that we serve. These are the values of the department, and are still the values of the department. And that’s what he stood for.”

Majority Leader Richard Nicolello R–New Hyde Park), whose caucus originated the idea of naming the headquarters after Willett, said he was proud of the vote he took as a legislator in 2000 to confirm him to the top post.

“It’s a proud day for Nassau County,” he said. “It’s a proud day for the police department.”

This plaque was erected next to the entrance of police headquarters. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Of the late commissioner he said, “He just exuded dignity. He was a natural leader. It had to be a difficult path—an African American in Nassau County. He took that path with character, with strength, with leadership.”

Applause broke out when Nicolello pronounced the new name of the police headquarters and he hoped it would be an inspiration for every officer and every chief to do their best.

“He stood for all that embodies the noble work of policing and law enforcement,” said county Legislator Siela Bynoe (D–Westbury), and mentioned that Chief of Department Steven Palmer and Chief of Detectives Kerchant Sewell (the first black woman to achieve that rank) were inspired by Willett, as was his son Blake, a retired MTA police officer.

“I knew Blake because as a young fun-loving Siela I used to go to Manhattan to hang out,” she related. “I used to go through Penn Station and I felt just that much safer, because Blake was there on patrol (applause). And when we took the train back to Westbury he made sure that we were safe.”

Bynoe added, “I stand here proud of all that [Willett] has accomplished and I stand here proud as a resident of Westbury, where we would frequently see Commissioner Willett ride by the park, checking on us to see what we were doing. And we would also see his beautiful wife [Flo] in the Westbury High School, serving us as a nurse (applause), making sure that we were fine, that we were well. This is a rich legacy that he has in Westbury.”

“It’s a proud moment for me as a commissioner to be part of this ceremony,” Commissioner Patrick Ryder said. “I came into this job in 1986. When Commissioner Willett came through in 1953, he came through the same doors. And he came through at a time in our history when the African American officer was not welcome. We welcome all to this police department today and it is because of trailblazer Bill Willett that set the groundwork to make it happen today.”

Ryder said that at one point he worked directly for Willett, and when called to the commissioner’s office he described his boss: “He was like a quiet lion, him sitting there humble in his chair, thankful for what he had, thankful for the officers that came in front of [him].”

The commissioner pointed out former Police Benevolent Association (PBA) President Gary DelaRaba in the crowd, and kidded that the PBA head was a “pain in the butt” for the commissioner.

DelaRaba, after the ceremony, called Willett, “A class act. He was one of a kind.” At the commissioner’s funeral, the union official praised him as “one of the wisest men I have ever met on this job. A perfect gentleman. He always remembered where he came from and where was going.”

Ryder also pointed out another African American in the audience who had risen through the ranks, former Third Precinct Commander Eric Jenkins, who served with Willett on the department’s Community Relations Bureau and was close to the late commissioner.

Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder announced that the department had retired William Willett’s badge No. 1029. Here he hands the plaque encasing it to the commissioner’s widow, Flo. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Jenkins recalled for Newsday in a 2000 article about Willett’s elevation how he and the then-lieutenant went into New Cassel to calm rioters: “Basically, we went one on one with individuals in the street, trying to explain to them that there were other avenues to get your feelings shown rather than burning down buildings or throwing rocks. It was very stressful for him, because he lived right there in that community. Unfortunately, some people addressed their animosity toward him rather than the problems that were occurring in society as a whole at the time. Unfortunately, the police were seen as the invaders in the community.”

The article went on to say that Willett met the challenge of defusing those fraught situations.

Ryder read from Willett’s obit: “No matter what rank William Willett obtained, he always had a wave or a warm smile to make you feel good about yourself. And that you meant something to this police department.”

He said that he follows his predecessor’s example in greeting police officers and offering a greeting and a smile and handshake.

Ryder presented Flo Willett with Willett’s old shield, No. 1029, which was retired. He also officially promoted his predecessor from police officer to detective—the only rank he did not achieve.

Sons Blake and Danny helped Flo to the podium, where she said, “I’m so humbled by this dedication. It’s a great testament to the sacrifice and the dedication that he put toward the County of Nassau. Bill, we’re so proud of you. Thank you to our family and our friend who are here. I’m overwhelmed being a part of this extraordinary day. I’ll never forget you. God bless you all.”

She received a standing ovation.

The Sons Speak

With the photo of his father in the background, Danny Willett talked about life growing up with the commissioner. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Danny Willett thanked people for “coming out on this monumental day to honor an incredible individual. For those who don’t know me, I’m the baby of the family (laughter). I’m not a baby now, but you get the idea. Usually I stay in the background. But today I have a lot to say from my perspective.”

He called his father a “man’s man, conservative in his ways. He was tough as nails. Never wavered in his ways. Regimented individual. Woke up at 5:30 a.m. every day, whether it as for work or on his day off. He was the family alarm clock. I remember him knocking on the door, ‘Hey, Dan, get up.’ You’re going to get up from that alarm—you’re not going to put it on snooze (laughter).”

Danny went on:

He shined his shoes to a mirror image. Spit shine. Polished his brass buttons. It was like he was ready for a spot inspection. That was him. He was a disciplined person. In my opinion, that was the reason why he was able to do so many things in 48 years of service on the NCPD.

I watched documentaries with my father, and God forbid if I asked a question. He would say ‘Stop!’ He studied the strategies of great generals like Patton or Rommel. Now that I’m grown up I realize he was in the same class as a leader—he was natural born leader.

He was dedicated to his men even at the expense of his family at times. I’m not going to lie. It was tough sometimes, but you know what, dad, I truly know you loved your men. His dedication was unparalleled, not only to the department but to his Catholic faith. His faith never wavered. His faith only seemed to get stronger, keeping him in line to continue to lead his family and the men and women of the police department.

Faith tied to what he was as a man in general, a man of integrity, fairness and selflessness. Just a mere mention of headquarters brings a warm feeling inside. I remember as a kid how excited I was to come to headquarters, whether it was a promotion ceremony or an open house or just visiting my dad. How proud I was to be part of the police family and the pleasure of seeing my father interact with his officers.

I would honestly say that he would be happy for his day, to be enshrined for an eternity as a pillar of Nassau County. We did it, dad (applause.)

Memories can never be taken from our hearts and they influence our decisions going forward. They help us carry on. And that’s what my father did for me and all who encountered him. His legacy will live on forever. I want to thank all those who made this well-deserved day possible.

Blake Willett stated, “This is so overwhelming. I had so much I wanted to say, but I think my little brother stole my speech (laughter). My father was a very humble man. And even though I see all this around me, he was the same man on his day off, when he was wearing khakis and drinking beer. And his neighbors would see him out there watering the grass with a hose. My father made a decision to make his life meaningful. He made a decision to make a difference. He made a decision to show excellence.”

He continued:

Where do we go from here? We are in a very turbulent time in race relations. What does Commissioner Willett mean to the active members who are here now? My father tried to show through his work that he’s going to make a difference in his community and the people that he worked for. If you really believe in who he was, and what he was trying to accomplish through all the adversity, it is now your turn to get through all that we are going through right now. To bring it together. For the good of everybody, not just this race or that race.

Blake Willett followed his father’s footsteps, but opted to join the MTA police force instead. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

It’s a time to make things better for everyone. This is what he tried to do, by doing his job to the best of his ability. He’s looking down right now and his name will be here forever. Dad, I never thought that this would happen became I know that was never you intention. Your intention was to just do a good job. And I believe that’s what he’s asking right now.

Dad, you have come home to your second family. He loved this department. He loved each and every one of you. And Dad, those footsteps I used to hear every day you walked around the house, now they’re going to hear yours—you will be here. You are back and I’m so proud of you.

More Praise

Legislator Siela Bynoe told Anton Media Group, “I’ll never forget when Commissioner Willett was appointed, and my mother Dolores was beaming with pride. She was a very avid newspaper reader. And when she read that Westbury’s own was appointed commissioner, she just had to tell me the news.”

Bynoe said that her colleagues in legislature felt it was time to name a building after a distinguished minority public servant.

The sign bearing the name is unveiled by family members, elected officials and police department leaders. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

“They came to the conclusion that it should be [Willett],” she said. “It bubbled up out of the Majority Caucus, and when it was presented to our caucus, we enthusiastically supported it, and it was anonymous.”

Putting Willett’s life and accomplishments in perspective she said, “It exemplifies the tenacity and perseverance, embodies his desire to serve this country. For him not to be pigeonholed. To [push back against] ‘OK, you’re an officer and that’s enough.’ And he said, ‘No. I want to more than that. I want to do more. I want to serve at a higher level.’ He had to push through all kinds of impediments and barriers and mindsets that did not want him in the force, much less became commissioner.”

She recalled, “We’d be hanging out at the New Cassel Park (now Martin “Bunky” Reid Park). And he’d ride through and make sure we were safe. He’d get out and talk to us and the young men would tell him what was going on. He was the heart of community.”

“It was an honor to be here today,” she concluded.

Flo Willett, asked by Anton Media Group if her husband ever thought he’d reach the top spot, replied. “Absolutely not. He did what he had to do. ‘Oh boy, I made it,’ was his reaction to getting appointed commissioner.”

Now living in Orlando, Flo still has a warm spot for her old hometown.

“Westbury meant everything to me,” she said. “Westbury was home.”

The NCPD Facebook posting with the renaming ceremony drew dozens of comments, universally complimentary. A sampling:

Willard F. Miller: “Commissioner Willett was a wonderful man. He conducted himself with dignity and grace. I think of him often.”

LD Marks: “Bill Willett was absolutely one of the finest bosses we had on the NCPD. A true gentleman, very kind and very smart.”

Pete Nekoloff: “He was a true gentleman. He treated his officers fairly and with respect. Rest In Peace sir!”

Ray Fais: “Great man, great boss, great friend, and truly deserved this honor and recognition.”

Fred Vasselman: “Excellent. Unbelievable role model. Leave identity politics out. Plain and simple, he was one of the most respected men that ever was a member of the department. RIP William Willett.”

Jim Molloy: “Well deserved. I am so proud to have served under him. I can honestly say he was the best boss I have ever worked for. God bless you boss.”

Lawrence Murray: “One can’t even imagine what this incredible man had to endure throughout his career. He was the singular reason why I stayed! God Bless him and his family.”

Diversity Then and Now

“I thought I would stall out at first deputy commissioner, which was quite an achievement. However, for my last years in the police department, it is great to be able to undertake the ultimate challenge,” Willett told the Westbury Times in 2000 after assuming the top post.

Bagpipers and an honor guard were part of the ceremony. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

In the same article, he touched on the diversity issue which continues to bedevil the department to this day, when minority representation on the force does not mirror the county population as a whole.

“People usually identify more easily with people who they see as their mirror image,” Willett told the paper. “The police department, not only in Nassau County, but historically, has been made up primarily of white males.”

The article went on, “But Willett placed responsibility on individuals, rather than on the police force itself, to increase minority hiring. ‘There are certain segments of a population that will come to an exam,’ he said. ‘You have to go and pull that other segment in. So, many times, you target that other segment, aim recruiting efforts at them, but they always come in smaller percentages, and there are smaller percentages of them when it all shakes out.’ Willett stated that his own groundbreaking achievements as the first black patrol supervisor, precinct commander and finally, commissioner, would dispel the myth that minority officer would never rise to those positions and thereby pave the way for those who would choose to follow in his footsteps.”

In an interview with Anton Media Group after the ceremony, Ryder said, “What Commissioner Willett did was lay a path. He turned around and he opened the doors to any African American. He said, ‘Look at me. Look at what I did. I’m the first African American.’ And he held every rank in our department. And it showed that we respected him and his hard work ethic.”

Regarding the diversity problem, Ryder admitted that there are a lower numbers of minority on the force despite heavy recruitment. Only about half of the minority applicants who signed up for the last police exam showed up, he related.

“We’re trying hard to recruit, to bring the minorities in,” the commissioner said. “We see a growing Hispanic population [in the county]. We also see that in the police department—that’s growing very quick. But not so much in the African American [community]. Maybe it’s trust factor. Maybe we need to do more work. That’s why we have to reform and that’s what we’re after.”

Curran has set up a committee to study the problem and come up with ways to increase diversity.

Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder tosses a frisbee at and exchanges greetings with two of his officers during the Night Out event in New Cassel back in 2019. Ryder noted that he followed the example of William Willett in how he treated those under his command. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

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