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Officials: Former Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer dies at 79

His eight-year tenure included the reorganization of the department's anti-gang unit and its first state accreditation.

Richard Dormer, then Suffolk County's police commissioner, in

Richard Dormer, then Suffolk County's police commissioner, in 2011. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Former Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, who led the department during the tumultuous Gilgo Beach killings investigation and also oversaw a boost in anti-gang policing and decreases in crime, died Sunday, his family and officials said.

Dormer, 79, died at his home in Northport surrounded by family after a three-year battle with cancer, his son Michael Dormer said.

Dormer’s eight-year tenure was filled with initiatives that helped lead to a 20 percent decline in crime, officials said. The department received state accreditation for the first time, launched a homeland security and anti-terrorism bureau and reorganized anti-gang police officers from precincts into a centralized unit. More civilian employees were hired to take on office work, and officials reined in excessive time out for injuries, officials said.

“Commissioner Dormer dedicated his life to public service, and he should be remembered for his commitment to public safety," said Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart in a statement. "I extend my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time to his family, including his children, two of whom are continuing his legacy as members of the Suffolk County Police Department, and to the men and women in the department who are mourning his loss.”

Dormer also focused on school-safety initiatives and started rapid deployment training for officers so they could enter schools with an active shooter instead of waiting on a SWAT team.

“The department made a lot of progress,” Suffolk police Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said. “He was the No. 1 person in the police department.”

Dormer's tenure was also marked by clashes with Suffolk legislators over staffing and officer deployment as well as the county's district attorney at the time, Thomas Spota, over the investigation into the deaths of 10 people whose bodies were dumped in thick brush near Gilgo Beach and other places along Ocean Parkway.

Dormer advanced the theory that one person probably killed the 10 victims. Previously, law enforcement authorities had said as many as three killers could have been responsible, all using the brush along the parkway as a dumping ground. Spota differed with Dormer’s theory, exposing a heated disagreement between the county’s two top law enforcement officers.

The killings remain unsolved.

Dormer retired after County Executive Steve Bellone was elected. 

He was born in County Laois, Ireland, in 1940 and never lost his Irish brogue. At age 18, he moved to the United States, with his journey funded at least in part by a soccer club in New York City, said Roger Shannon, former police deputy commissioner. He began working at Kings Park State Hospital and played soccer in the evenings with the goal of becoming a police officer, which he did in 1963. He went on to become chief of patrol and chief of headquarters division.

He retired from the force in 1993 as a three-star chief and ran security at an amusement center in Lake Grove. Dormer went back to the department in 2004 after he was asked by the county executive at the time, Steve Levy, to serve as commissioner.

“Suffolk was blessed to have been served by such an outstanding leader and wonderful human being,” said Levy, who nominated Dormer for the top department role.

Dormer was known to fight for police officers' promotions, doing "hand-to-hand combat" with Levy to get funding approved, Shannon said.

"He always tried to do what he thought was right for both the police department and the taxpayers," Suffolk Legis. and former police officer Robert Trotta said. "It was a balancing act." 

Dormer read incessantly, using ideas from magazines and newspapers to pitch his department on new policing tactics, Shannon said.

He also invested in anti-gang policing, leading to a drop in MS-13 crimes after a spike in 2009 and 2010, Levy said. Dormer also entered into an intelligence-sharing agreement with El Salvadoran law enforcement to help catch MS-13 members.

Dormer held a master's degree in business administration from the New York Institute of Technology, studied at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and attended the FBI National Academy. After he left the commissioner post, he taught criminal justice at Suffolk County Community College and served as executive vice president for Arrow Security.

Dormer was known for his wit, modesty, and passion for soccer. County officials knew that during an emergency they could always find him off-hours at the soccer field, either playing, coaching or refereeing.

He was predeceased by his first wife, Sheila. Along with Michael Dormer, he is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughters, Kathleen Brady and Bridget Dormer; sons, John Dormer and Richard Dormer; as well as eight grandchildren.

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