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Long IslandHistory

A drug raid on campus

A woman masks her face as her boyfriend

A woman masks her face as her boyfriend is handcuffed during a drug raid by 165 Suffolk County Police officers on the Stony Brook campus in on January 17, 1968. Photo Credit: Newsday/Marvin Sussman

This originally appeared in the book "Long Island: Our Story," on Nov. 15, 1998.

There were 165 uniformed Suffolk police officers and plainclothes detectives out there in the darkness at 5 a.m.

They were holding warrants for 38 suspects named in a sealed indictment. Also in their hands were copies of an elaborate manual drawn up for the raid. Bearing the crest of the county police narcotics squad, the manual included pictures of a marijuana leaf and a poppy. It contained maps of all the places to be raided and descriptions of the suspects and their associates ("subject in the past has worn an American flag as a cape"). The manual emphasized the need for caution and strict radio silence.

On signal, the officers pounced - fanning out across the lawns of the State University at Stony Brook. They were hunting college students and their associates. The charges ranged from possession to use to sale of substances from marijuana to hallucinogens.

It was Jan. 17, 1968 — the day of the great Stony Brook drug bust. It was the first known case in the nation where police had penetrated the presumed academic sanctity of a major university for such a raid. Some said the bust was a bust.

In their first sweep, the raiders picked up 20 suspects — mostly students and a few campus hangers-on. But there would be more arrests later. Students complained that the officers had torn their dorm rooms apart in searches for evidence. Police retorted that those searches had uncovered a pistol and quantities of marijuana, hashish and hallucinogens.

A sharp debate erupted about the legitimacy of the raid — a debate that mirrored the larger disagreement raging nationally between the establishment and the counterculture on issues from drugs to the Vietnam War. Some argued that the police had no place on a college campus and that marijuana should be legalized. Police and public officials said they were just enforcing the law.

The raids precipitated a wave of events stretching for several months. There was a long grand jury investigation, followed by two state legislative investigations. Two professors were jailed on contempt charges for refusing to cooperate. Two university officials were transferred. There was a second police raid that touched off a student riot. And, deserved or not, Stony Brook gained the reputation of being a "drug school."

Among the more volatile issues debated after the initial raid was the strategy police had used in conducting their initial investigation. Two young police officers, Frank Gennari and John Colby, went undercover on the Stony Brook campus - posing as nonstudents and making small-time drug connections.

Some students, suspecting Colby was a federal narcotics agent, took to calling him "John the Fed." But many would later say they could not conceive of police coming onto campus. The notion of a university being a sanctuary irritated Henry O'Brien, the assistant district attorney supervising the case. "I just felt that the university was to blame for a lot of this," O'Brien said later.

University officials did not dispute that there was a drug problem on the campus. One official said a survey disclosed that at least a third of Stony Brook students had smoked marijuana. But the officials bristled at police officers' contention that they could not notify campus administrators of the pending raid for fear of a leak.

The current Stony Brook president, Shirley Strum Kenny, said in a recent interview that - although she was not there at the time - what she had heard about 1968 raids made her believe "the response was maximal to what was not a very dangerous situation for our nation."

She said there is not the sort of drug-use problem at Stony Brook that there was on many campuses in the 1960s. As for police coming on campus, Kenny said, "We have our own security force - certainly able to handle most situations. If ever an emergency arises that our security force can't handle, we would go to the Suffolk police. But, if police came on campus uninvited, that would be a bad situation."

After all the commotion, the law-enforcement results of the raid were hardly stunning. Only about a third of those arrested served even a day of jail time. "Not one went to trial," Henry O'Brien said. "Every one was a plea. They didn't plead to felonies. Why ruin the kids?"

The police narcotics squad commander, Det. Sgt. Robert Cummins, complained that penalties should have been heavier - that "people were getting off on misdemeanors." Five years later, Cummins himself was indicted on charges of siphoning off $40,000 in money that was supposed to be used to make undercover drug buys.

Cummins pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail — bigger trouble than any of the Stony Brook Suffolk defendants confronted.

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