Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks, 57, was off duty in an unmarked department-issued car when the 2008 Ford sedan veered off the road and hit a concrete bridge support at 5:32 a.m., police said.
A 30-year police veteran, Reecks had served as commanding officer of the bias-crimes unit during major investigations -- including the beating of day laborers in Farmingville, and the stabbing death of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero. In January, Reecks was replaced as head of the unit but continued as second in command.
"He played a role in building stronger relationships with the minority community and worked to reduce hate crimes through education," Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said in a statement. "His death is a loss for the police department and the community."
County Executive Steve Levy, whom Reecks had publicly criticized over bias crime investigations, said, "This is a sad day for Suffolk County. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Det. Sgt. Reecks' family and friends."
Police said Reecks had worked a 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift Friday night, and that they were investigating how he spent the hours before the crash.
A paramedic who stopped to help smashed a window and took Reecks' pulse, finding him unresponsive, said Donald Dixon, a motorcyclist who also stopped to help after the crash.
Dixon said he was driving in the right lane when Reecks' car passed him traveling an estimated 90-100 mph. "He hit that abutment and it just disintegrated," Dixon said of the Ford.
Police are investigating whether speed was indeed a factor, said Det. Lt. Gail Marrero.
"Who knows what the speed was?" said the Seventh Squad's Det. James DeMarco. "All I know is there was massive damage to the car."
Marrero said there was no indication drugs or alcohol were involved, but couldn't rule it out until after hearing from the medical examiner.
Reecks, of Riverhead, was pronounced dead at the scene.
"It makes you realize how fragile life is," said Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Central Islip), who worked closely with Reecks in his role in the bias crimes unit.
Reecks' family said it was in "shock and mourning".
"Rob was loved by his family and friends, and he will be missed terribly," the Reecks family said in a statement.
Reecks had served on the Suffolk County Legislature's Hate Crimes Task Force until he abruptly resigned after he was replaced as head of the bias crimes unit.
Shortly after, Reecks told Newsday that his ability to solve hate crimes was compromised in 2004 when Levy won election. "They came in and they started to shut it down . . . All of a sudden it was, no, you are not doing that, no, that is not a hate crime," Reecks said at the time.
Levy denied Reecks' claims at that time but said police policy changed so that hate crimes were investigated before the public was notified.
In 2010, Reecks was interviewed by the Justice Department in its ongoing probe of allegations that police routinely mishandled complaints by Hispanic residents. That probe is ongoing.
"He was a cop's cop," said Suffolk County Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), chair of the hate crimes task force:
"I know he was frustrated with the politics with the administration and his demotion . . . I respect him for speaking his mind. I know a lot of police officers respected that. He was a stand-up guy."
Civil rights advocates said Reecks was dedicated in his fight against hate crimes.
"I always found him to be a true fighter in the face of crimes, and acts of bias and prejudice and hatred," said Rabbi Steven Moss of B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale and chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.
With Mark Harrington, Jeremy Schneider, Kery Murakami,
and Robert E. Kessler