A highly decorated gang unit responsible for making scores of felony arrests, gun recoveries and drug busts in Nassau's toughest neighborhoods has been reassigned to regular patrol duty -- the latest casualty in the county's effort to curb spiraling police costs, police sources said.
The 12 transferred cops made up the department's Gang Abatement Program, formed more than a decade ago, which does plainclothes anti-crime operations in Roosevelt, Uniondale, Freeport and Hempstead, the sources said. The officers are among the most knowledgeable about daily street-level gang activity, the sources said, and they regularly conduct operations involving dangerous street gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, MS-13 and Salvadorans With Pride.
The GAP unit's members were among an estimated 45 plainclothes officers assigned to precincts who returned to uniformed duty Thursday in a surprise personnel shift. Sources said the move was designed to meet contractual minimum-staffing requirements in each precinct, instead of having to pay overtime to fill the posts.
The department says the officers will go back to plainclothes at the start of 2015.
Acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter Thursday declined an interview request from Newsday. Insp. Kenneth Lack, a department spokesman, said in an email the move will save about $4.4 million in overtime this year.
"This will have a positive impact on the budget and will reduce overtime opportunities in the patrol division," Lack said, adding, "As we currently do, we will continue to monitor crime trends on a daily basis and adjust accordingly."
Lack said other undercover officers -- from Bureau of Special Operations, for example -- will keep working in high-crime areas. Combined with the village police departments in Freeport and Hempstead, he said, the department will "mitigate any crime trends and quality-of-life issues that arise."
"While it is clear that police officers being reassigned are likely to be disappointed, they are professionals and we anticipate and expect they will continue to perform at the same high level they always have," Lack said.
In a statement, County Executive Edward Mangano said the actions are part of Krumpter's "temporary initiative" to bring down overtime. "We will closely monitor the initiative's effectiveness while making sure the community needs are met by supervisors. The Commissioner will likely make adjustments to the initiative based on circumstances during the six-month period."
Police budgets have long been a thorny issue in Nassau, where county cops are among the best-paid law enforcement employees in the country. Police overtime spiked by 26 percent in 2013 -- from $49.9 million to $63 million -- the largest increase in the past four years, due largely to workforce level reductions meant to close county budget gaps.
Last year's overtime spending represented a 74 percent increase from 2009, according to data from the county comptroller. Nassau's Office of Management and Budget projects a deficit of $2.6 million in police salary funds for 2014, and estimated overtime costs of $60 million for 2014, while a report issued last month by the independent Office of Legislative Budget Review projects it will be even higher.
According to two police sources with knowledge of the GAP unit's casework, many GAP members have won departmental awards and commendations for their high arrest numbers and weapons seizures -- productivity the department may struggle to replace.
"Once the criminals realize what's happening, you'll see more drugs, more shootings, more robberies, because they'll think they can act freely," one source said. "This loss creates a hazard for the future. These are the most-decorated cops."
James Carver, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said the shift is not sitting well with the transferred officers. He said it has the potential to reverse historic crime lows and was brought on by "critically low levels" of sworn officers.
"You have cops that are upset," said Carver. "They love doing their jobs. They're doing surveillance. They get into the weeds. Anybody who tells you that taking away plainclothes is not going to have an impact on crime -- they're wrong. If you're in a marked car, the perpetrators can see you a mile away."
Among the other plainclothes officers reassigned were cops from the Problem Oriented Policing unit, which worked closely with residents on crime prevention, the sources said.
Some officials said the transfer of the plainclothes cops, and GAP in particular, could jeopardize public safety. "Getting rid of these special patrols is unconscionable," said Legis. David Denenberg, (D-Merrick), a member of the public safety committee. "It's going to have an adverse effect on public safety."
With Robert Brodsky