John Wighaus, president of the Nassau County Detectives Association, said Thursday that a shortage of department detectives is hampering efforts to battle the opioid crisis and gangs such as MS-13. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The head of Nassau County's detectives union said Thursday that the county police department needs about 100 more detectives, and should triple the number fighting gang violence.

John Wighaus, president of the Nassau County Detectives Association Inc., said he feared that crime will escalate because the current detectives are too short-staffed to adequately battle the opioid crisis and gangs such as MS-13.

"I think this is especially true and alarming in communities that have a violent gang problem," said Wighaus during a news conference in Freeport. 

Wighaus' statements arrive as the detectives union begins contract negotiations with the county, and he made clear that expanding the ranks of detectives is a priority.

In a statement Thursday, a police department spokesman acknowledged the shortage.

"The department is aware of the shortage of detectives and is proactively working to rectify the issue and recruit new detectives," said Lt. Richard LeBrun. 

LeBrun defended the department's work, saying, "Here in Nassau County we have historical decreases in crime thanks to the dedicated work of our officers and detectives."

Detective staffing has been an ongoing issue between the union and county administration. County Executive Laura Curran said Thursday through a spokeswoman that contractual terms negotiated by the previous administration have made recruiting detectives difficult.

"Remedying that is a main focus of the Curran administration’s collective bargaining process," said county spokeswoman Christine Geed.

Overall, the Nassau police department has 316 detectives, 44 short of its budgeted amount of 360, officials said. Suffolk has about 365 detectives, officials there said.

Wighaus said the number in Nassau should be upward of 420, especially since the department is considering reopening two precincts.

Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder supports increasing the detective ranks to the budgeted 360, LeBrun said.

Wighaus said the county gang unit has seven detectives, but the number should be at least 20. He said the seven detectives handled 305 gang-related cases last year, the great majority of them violent felonies.

The narcotics/vice unit has 27 detectives, less than half of what it had 20 years ago, he said. He would like the prior number restored.

LeBrun, for his part, said the department does not comment on the size of special units.

Wighaus said the shortage hampers the detectives' ability to fight crime proactively with undercover operations and surveillance.

"The more detectives you have out there in these units proactively conducting these investigations, the more results you will have," Wighaus said.

Fewer officers are applying to become detectives because the current contract does not compensate them enough for the additional work and responsibility, he said. Forty-three detectives are being paid as police officers, who generally earn a lower salary, he said.

During the news conference, Wighaus was joined by several local pastors who echoed his call to grow the ranks of detectives. 

"We need more than seven" detectives in the gang unit, said Rev. Eric Mallette, pastor of the Greater Second Baptist Church in Freeport. "It's about the quality of life and the protection of families."

Bishop Phillip Elliott of Antioch Baptist Church in Hempstead agreed.

"We have unsolved murders. That is the litmus test," said Elliott. "They don't have enough detectives."

Pastor Robert Wilson, who has lived in Westbury for 20 years, said the gang violence recently touched his street when a gang member shot and wounded a person.

"The whole block was shut down," said Wilson, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Queens. "It wasn't like this when I bought my house."

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