As the clock ticked past midnight on Jan. 1, 1960, Jack Schelling sat in his patrol car in Islip, waiting excitedly for his first call as a Suffolk County police officer.
"Anybody on that shift probably had the same feeling," Schelling said of the anticipation he felt as a freshly minted Suffolk patrolman.
On that New Year's Day a brand new police department was born.
As Suffolk County grew, with the families and developments came the less desirable elements of crime and mischief. And a number of crimes that sprawled across different jurisdictions had challenged the smaller municipalities.
"We had high-profile murders occurring in different jurisdictions," said Richard Dormer, who has been police commissioner since 2004. "It was decided they would form one major police department."
A 1958 referendum led to the 1960 formation of the county police department, which was an assembly of officers from the district attorney's office and town, village and state police departments. The move came after an assortment of towns and villages decided it was time to form a unified political entity and created the office of the county executive.
Forming the county police department were the five western towns - Babylon, Huntington, Islip, Smithtown and Brookhaven - and the incorporated villages of Lindenhurst, Babylon, Patchogue, Brightwaters, Village of the Branch, Old Field, Poquott, Belle Terre, Shoreham, and Bellport.
The East End towns decided to maintain their own police forces, as did several villages, most also on the East End.
Pulling the participating communities together "was not an easy task," Dormer said. Standardized rules were established by the first police commissioner, Charles Thom, a Port Jefferson lawyer who had been serving as chief assistant Suffolk district attorney.
"Most of the fellows were a bit nervous because they did not know too many people from the other townships," Schelling recalled.
Starting salaries were $4,800, and training was limited to "guns, badges and good intentions," said Dormer.
In 1960, Dormer was a 22-year-old recent immigrant from Ireland, working as a baker at the Kings Park hospital and three years away from joining the force at his uncle's behest.
The inaugural class had 619 officers; today there are more than 2,500. Women and minorities were part of the staff from the beginning, though women could not hold front-line jobs until the 1970s, according to the Suffolk police museum in Yaphank. Over the years, the county and the police department have been the subject of discrimination lawsuits regarding the hiring and continued employment of women and minorities. In one, settled in 1986, the U.S. Justice Department maintained that Suffolk's civil service exam had had an "adverse impact" on women and minorities. The settlement called for hiring more women and minorities and creation of a new exam.
Schelling had worked as a patrolman for the Islip police department for four years before joining the county inaugural class, earning the maximum officer pay of $6,000. He spent his career working with the robbery squad and retired in 1992.
"I loved being a police officer throughout my career," said Schelling, who is now 80 years old and lives in Islip. Schelling, who serves as the president of the police historical society, said nearly 1,000 former officers are expected to attend an anniversary commemoration in May at police headquarters in Yaphank.
Fifty years after the force's beginning, the county's growth is mirrored not only in the expansion of the force's size, but in its scope and capabilities, and Dormer reflected on the changes in police work. "Technology is going to drive policing" in the future, he said. "Criminals are very creative, and a police department has to be on top of that and proactive."