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Northport offers nod to departing longtime police chief Eric (Ric) Bruckenthal

Outgoing Northport Police Chief, Eric "Ric" Bruckenthal poses

Outgoing Northport Police Chief, Eric "Ric" Bruckenthal poses for a photo at police headquarters in Northport, Sept. 10, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

When Eric (Ric) Bruckenthal started patrolling Northport streets in 1978, his primary duty was breaking up barroom brawls.

Retiring after 37 years with the department, Bruckenthal, 62, has a rare perspective on how the village and law enforcement have transformed.

"Northport was a different type of town back then . . . solid, lower-middle-class," he said. "The police activity back then was refereeing."

He became chief in 2000, with a two-pronged focus: community policing and tackling the drug problem.

Northport, population 7,500, has seen rising property values over the decades, and an influx of wealthier residents.

"It's a different demographic and a different type of people," he said. "As that changes, other things change."

The waterfront village is now a destination, drawing tourists and boaters to its dock, parks and Main Street.

"I love to call this Mayberry, I really do," he said. "There's a very charming aspect of this village."

It's different from the 1970s, when drunken drivers weren't stopped, and police rarely intervened in domestic disputes, Bruckenthal said."Don't you dare drink and drive in Northport now," he said. "Don't you dare hit your spouse."

Drugs have persisted, but trends evolved: cocaine in the 1980s; a resurgence of marijuana in the 1990s and 2000s; and the rise and availability of prescription drugs in the early 2000s. State crackdowns on prescription drugs led to increased heroin use, Bruckenthal said. "The people who are using heroin, they're your neighbors and your neighbors' kids," he said.

Bruckenthal refocused the department on higher-level dealers, contributing to arrests beyond the village, an effort his successor, Lt. Bill Ricca, will continue when he takes over later this month.

He's proud of that, and of his relationship with the community. The latter was evident in late 2003-early 2004, when residents rallied behind him after a village consultant raised concerns about police overtime and abuse of comp time.

He was suspended without pay, but the public swiftly defended him, raising funds and putting up lawn signs supporting the chief.

"You start second-guessing yourself," he said. "Did I do something wrong?"

Months passed as he waited to learn if his career was over. Then, on April 24, 2004, his son Nathan, 24, was killed in the northern Persian Gulf while serving in the Coast Guard.

"It was over the day he died," Bruckenthal said. "I got a phone call: 'We're going to make this go away.' "

A crowd welcomed him when he returned to work. "I had to move on," he said. "I had lost more than [just] a couple of months of being suspended."

Bruckenthal's community focus extends to his officers --including his son Matthew, 26, who joined the department in 2013 -- who are expected to build relationships with the people of Northport.

He lives by example, greeting everyone by name as he walks down the street.

"He's run a good department, [telling] the officers that we really are here to help village residents when they're in need," Village trustee and Police Commissioner Damon McMullen said.

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