More than 30 Suffolk police detectives have taken the retirement incentive offered by County Executive Steve Bellone, leaving their already thinning ranks at a level some officials are calling "lower than acceptable" and even "dangerous."
Nearly 10 percent of detectives -- 31 -- departed a month ago with the incentive, more than officers (29) or supervisors (a dozen). As a result, Suffolk police have now lost 28 percent of its detectives over the past 15 years, from 443 to 321, while officers have declined less than 5 percent, from 1,784 to 1,707.
Among concerns cited by law enforcement leaders, who want some positions restored: drug investigations will suffer, daily probes such as burglaries and assaults will be delayed, and cases won't be as thoroughly documented for prosecutors.
Their request comes at a sensitive time, as Bellone has reacted to a $530 million deficit projection by cutting nearly every other aspect of county government. The retirement deal was meant to avoid 38 police layoffs. Bellone has hinted that, without concessions from the county's general employees, he may lay off more of them than the 302 leaving June 30.
While some law enforcement experts say that even public safety must live with less in today's economy, Bellone aides confirm they're in talks to restore detectives, and are fielding internal applications for the title as they assess the divisions where they're most needed. However, they don't yet have an exact number or a timetable.
"The public safety of Suffolk County residents is a priority for County Executive Bellone," said his spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter, noting that even if officers are promoted to detective, they remain at their previous salary for nine months. So, she said, the county wouldn't need more money for the positions until 2013.
But the leader of Suffolk's largest union said she hopes Bellone is equitable in his consideration of job restorations.
"What he does for one bargaining unit, I hope he does for the others," said Cheryl Felice, the outgoing Association of Municipal Employees president. "It's the civilian staff, answering phones and typing reports, that supports those higher titles and positions."
As many as 10 Suffolk police detectives per shift once manned precinct squads; it now averages five or six, and can be as low as two, union officials said. So a shooting or serious car crash -- incidents requiring two or more investigators -- may leave no one behind for the next call.
"I'm confident the county executive shares my concerns that staffing is currently lower than acceptable," Bill Plant, Suffolk Detective Association president, said last week. "When you get down to two or three any one night, they're mostly putting out fires, and there's not as much time to follow up."
In Nassau, police say detective ranks haven't thinned as much. In 2002, there were 380. Today there are 350 -- a decline of less than 8 percent.
Pressure on Bellone to restore detectives comes from both political parties. Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said Bellone "has to" do so, citing a concern that narcotics probes will suffer, while District Attorney Thomas Spota, a Democrat who once represented the detectives union, recently told lawmakers that staffing is at "a very dangerous level."
He said his investigators must pick up police detectives' slack for case follow-up that often impact prosecutions.
"They're just moving onto the next case," Spota said of the detectives, "as they have to."
James Bueermann, a retired Southern California police chief and senior fellow at George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy, said Suffolk's problems aren't unique.
"We're seeing nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of police agencies," he said.
If money is tight, Bueermann suggested having retired detectives, as volunteers, review cold cases, and for day-to-day probes, hiring more lower-paid civilian crime lab technicians. That may allow faster processing of DNA evidence, and potentially, the same smaller team of detectives could solve more burglaries and robberies.
"You can leverage taxpayer investment in the police department," he said, "without substantially dropping service."