Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber says he intends to bring fresh strategies to the 2,400-officer department by honing in on the numbers to fight crime and cut costs.
Cracking down on gang- and prescription drug-related crimes are top priorities for the department, Webber said.
"Ten percent of criminals commit 90 percent of the crimes," Webber said. "We don't just want to make arrests. We want to prevent these activities."
Webber, 65, appointed last week by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, describes himself as an accountant turned "street cop." Using that background, he said he'll focus on mining data to identify crime trends and to reduce soaring overtime expenses as the county grapples with gang shootings and a looming $300 million deficit.
Gang activity a 'cancer'
Webber will oversee policing in a county where he said gang activity has become a "cancer" on communities and prescription drug-related crimes have become a major issue since David Laffer murdered four people in a robbery of a Medford pharmacy on Father's Day 2011.
He is responsible for the ongoing investigation of the Gilgo Beach murders. In addition, the U.S. Justice Department is reviewing allegations of discriminatory policing against Hispanics in the wake of the 2008 hate-crime killing of Marcelo Lucero.
Webber said he plans to develop prevention strategies targeting gang- and prescription drug-crimes by working closely with Chief of Department James Burke and newly named Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis. As an assistant Nassau County district attorney, Mention-Lewis developed initiatives to help keep gang members and other criminals from becoming repeat offenders.
Webber had been running the department as acting commissioner since January. Bellone, who appointed Webber as commissioner on Wednesday after a national search, credited him with already reducing overtime expenses by $2 million and restructuring the department's gang-prevention unit to put more officers on the streets.
"In today's economic environment, having the ability to not only understand the budget but know how to maximize limited resources is absolutely critical to effective policing," Bellone said. The county legislature still must vote to confirm Webber, but both Democratic and Republican legislators have publicly expressed their support.
Looking for crime patterns
Shortly after becoming acting commissioner, Webber began a push for what he calls "intelligence-led policing." The program has placed "field intelligence officers" in each of the county's seven precincts, and relies heavily on computer analyses of crime data.
The program's first phase involved expedited distribution of real-time statistics to everyone from civilian dispatchers to police commanders. While the department has always relied on crime data, Webber said the new program is helping to get information out sooner.
"We had a burglar who committed 14 burglaries across four police districts, [and] we were able to notice a certain pattern," that led to an arrest, Webber recalled in an interview last week in his office at police headquarters in Yaphank.
Webber also has dispersed the county's anti-gang unit, which formerly operated from police headquarters in Yaphank. The 39 officers now are spread throughout the precincts.
"When you're out in the community on a regular basis, you get to know who the gang members are, you have a stronger awareness of the issues," Webber said.
Mindful of the Justice Department probe in the wake of the Lucero killing, Webber said the department is forming an "enhanced community response unit," which will deploy officers as liaisons to civic and minority groups.
"We feel that communication with the community dispels the distrust," Webber said.
Nick Amarr, president of Suffolk County CrimeStoppers, a volunteer group that raises money to reward tips leading to arrests, said community members are responding to the overtures. "He's a good listener and realizes partnering up with the community is an important part of the job," Amarr said.
Webber said the department has cut down on overtime costs by giving officers more leeway to handle some arrests that previously would have required "special teams" of officers.
Webber said he is aware of the challenges of trying to reduce crime while cutting costs. But he said initiatives including data-driven policing will help place officers where they are needed most.
"It's about becoming much more efficient and maximizing the resources available," he said.
In discussing his plans for the police department, Webber noted that protecting Suffolk is personal.
Webber grew up in Brentwood, one of six children. His father was a machinist and his mother a librarian.
A graduate of Brentwood High School, he received a bachelor's degree in accounting from St. John's University in Queens. Shortly after graduating in 1968, he married his high school sweetheart Kathleen Mahr. The couple lived in Fort Lewis, Wash., for two years after Webber was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. He coordinated logistics for traveling soldiers but was not deployed overseas.
In 1970, the couple returned to Brentwood and later moved to Bay Shore, where they raised three sons. Edward Jr., 42, is an information technology specialist with the Suffolk police; Steven, 39, is a Suffolk police sergeant; and Brian, 36, is a radiologist.
Webber, a CPA, worked initially as an auditor for the international accounting firm Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. But he wanted a job in which he could apply the investigative skills he learned combing through financial reports while being out of the office, "helping people on a regular basis," he recalled.
Webber and his brother-in-law James Mahr joined the police force at the same time in 1972, after taking the Suffolk Police Academy entrance exam "on a whim," Mahr recalled.
They were assigned to the First Precinct in Babylon and one night on foot patrol they came upon an unruly crowd of more than 100 people who had spilled outside in a bar brawl.
Foot-patrol officers didn't have radios to call for backup, so Webber and Mahr entered the crowd standing back-to-back, defusing the melee the best way they knew how -- "with verbal judo," Mahr recalled.
"We were just talking to them, trying to calm things down until more support came," said Mahr, who retired from the force three years ago as a detective lieutenant in charge of the hostage negotiation team.
The response was typical of Webber, said Mahr: "He is very logical and analytical. He's even-tempered, he doesn't fly off the handle."
'The go-to guy'
Webber later served as a sergeant in the Second Precinct in Huntington, commander of the arson squad and chief of the patrol division. For 10 years he served as chief of support services, handling the department's budget and earning a reputation as being "the go-to guy," said Loring Miller, chairman of the Police Reserves, a civic support group that raises money for police officer scholarships and awards.
"There's always a lot of places you can go to for answers, but with him you knew you were going to get an accurate answer," said Miller, who has dealt with Webber since volunteering with the reserves in 1997. "He's so well rounded in knowing the workings of the department, because he's done it all."
For his part, Webber said he hasn't looked back since making the decision to take a steep pay cut from his accounting job for a life tackling crime.
"In all my years and different responsibilities I have come to realize that people just want to feel safe in their neighborhoods," he said. "I never look back. I've gotten too much satisfaction being able to help people."