Suffolk top cops to tackle drug probe, Gilgo

Suffolk County Police Chief of Department James Burke,

Suffolk County Police Chief of Department James Burke, front, and acting Police Commissioner Edward Webber, behind, speak with Newsday during an interview at police headquarters. (Jan. 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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New leaders of the Suffolk Police Department pledged Monday to tackle the county's highest-profile issues, saying they'll assign a special detective to a grand jury probe of painkiller prescriptions and convene an all-day meeting with investigators in the unsolved Gilgo Beach murders.

With Nassau police naming a parolee from Suffolk as the suspect in Saturday's Seaford pharmacy robbery, Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke said it's clear prescription drug abuse has become "one of the greatest threats to the citizens of Suffolk County."

Burke has asked a department detective -- who's also a registered pharmacist -- to assist District Attorney Thomas Spota's special grand jury review of whether physicians have improperly prescribed painkillers. Spota empaneled the grand jury following Newsday reports that David Laffer and his wife filled prescriptions for almost 12,000 pain pills from dozens of doctors in the four years before Laffer murdered four people at a Medford pharmacy in June.

"We have to confront it, because there's no end in sight," Burke said of the issue.

Joined by acting Commissioner Edward Webber at the department's Yaphank headquarters, Burke described other imminent changes to a force whose previous commanders County Executive Steve Bellone dubbed "dysfunctional." Bellone appointed Burke and Webber recently as part of an effort to "stabilize" the department.

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Bellone's comments came after Spota criticized former Police Commissioner Richard Dormer for his theory that one killer was likely responsible for all 10 homicide victims found near Gilgo Beach in 2010 and 2011.

Burke, formerly Spota's chief investigator, declined to say whether he also believes more than one killer is likely to blame.

Burke said he and Webber have "cleared an entire day on our schedules" this week for briefings on the Gilgo investigation. He said the case was "of utmost importance.

"We will utilize whatever resources necessary to bring the killer or killers to justice," Burke said.

Burke and Webber also said police would fight gangs by returning the work of the centralized gang unit to local precincts. And they said the department will conduct a comprehensive review of officers' assignments to improve efficiency.

"I think we can always use more people," Webber said of his roughly 2,545-officer force, which is down from more than 2,700 members several years ago. "But the financial position of the county is such where we'll have to look at things closely, and perhaps reassign the personnel we have to be as effective as we can be."

Burke credited Dormer's administration for beginning the reforms recently suggested by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of its ongoing probe of the department's handling of hate crimes in the county. He said improved coordination between patrol and intelligence activities would make community policing and the fight against gangs in immigrant communities more effective.

"They're going to have equal footing," Burke said. "And I think it's going to give us better results going forward."

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