Suffolk County Executive-elect Steve Bellone said Tuesday that he will move to quickly stabilize a police department that has become, "in some ways, dysfunctional."
Bellone, a Democrat who will be sworn in Dec. 30, said District Attorney Thomas Spota's willingness to publicly criticize Police Commissioner Richard Dormer's handling of the Gilgo Beach killings -- as well as Dormer's overall leadership -- suggests a systemic law enforcement problem that could be affecting other investigations.
"If you have the most high-profile case the department has had to deal with in years, maybe ever, and the district attorney's office and the police department are not effectively working together on that, what's happening with all the other cases that don't get any media attention, that are just below the surface, but affect real people?" Bellone said.
In testimony last week before a county legislative committee, Spota disputed Dormer's theory that one killer was likely responsible for the 10 victims found along Ocean Parkway. Later, in an interview with Newsday, Spota said Dormer's public remarks could damage efforts to eventually get a conviction because the airing of different theories suggest authorities disagree about who is responsible.
In addition, Spota said Dormer was more loyal to County Executive Steve Levy, who appointed him, than to the men and women of his department, and that Levy exercised "unprecedented" political influence over police operations.
Levy, a Republican, has defended the commissioner as overseeing a 24 percent drop in crime since 2004 while streamlining the department -- and saving money -- through civilianization, redeploying highway patrol, and creating more efficient shifts.
"By calling a department that cut overall crime by 24 percent dysfunctional," Levy said in a statement Tuesday, "it appears that the new administration is setting the stage to put the PBA [police union] back in control of the department and raise taxes."
The acrimony over Levy removing police from routine patrols of the Long Island Expressway and replacing them with county sheriff's deputies, coupled with Spota's comments, suggest law enforcement disputes distract from the county's core mission of public safety, Bellone said.
"We need to stabilize the police department. This is a department, clearly, that is not operating at anywhere near the level of its potential. It is a department that is, in some ways, dysfunctional today, and not focused on the core missions of what it needs to be doing to help the county and to solve the problems," he said.
Bellone promised change. "It's disturbing to me that this police force is not operating at its full capabilities, or even close to that," Bellone said. "We need more people on the streets and we need an organization that is focused on the mission of crime-solving . . . cops need to be cops again."
Bellone last week named Edward Webber, Suffolk police's chief of support services, as interim police commissioner effective Jan. 1. He also ousted four of Dormer's chiefs.
Webber, a 39-year department veteran whom Bellone called a "stabilizing force," is expected to lead into spring, as a national search for a new commissioner is conducted.
Spota's chief investigator, James Burke, will serve as chief of department, the police's top uniformed officer. Spota, a Democrat serving his third term as district attorney, is not considered a commissioner candidate, Bellone said.
The interim commissioner didn't specify additional changes but said relations between police and minority communities would be immediately addressed. The U.S. Department of Justice issued a letter in September that said Suffolk police should enhance community policing and strengthen its efforts to combat hate crimes.
"What we did in the past is not indicative of what we're going to do in the future," Webber said.
Still unclear is who will fill the detective, support and two patrol chief positions to be vacated Jan. 1, or if Bellone will trim the total number of police administrators.
With Carl MacGowan