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Levy: Cops' vehicle checkpoints to fight gang activity

Suffolk County Executive Stevy Levy, on Carlton Avenue

Suffolk County Executive Stevy Levy, on Carlton Avenue in Central Islip, announces a new anti-gang police effort, Monday. (March 22, 2010) Photo Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk police will begin stopping vehicles at daily checkpoints in high traffic areas of four communities, the first time such an operation is to be used as an anti-gang tool in the county.

The checkpoints were announced Monday by County Executive Steve Levy as part of an aggressive policy in Brentwood, Central Islip, Wyandanch and Huntington Station to replace gangs with police presence.

Levy said the checkpoints are part of a "no-holds-barred" approach to fighting crime that aims to secure communities rattled by violence while respecting the civil rights of residents.

"Everything will be done within constitutional parameters," he said. "But we are going to make sure this police infusion is intense and does the job."

The first of the checkpoints was set up Monday in Central Islip at the corner of Brightside and Carleton avenues, where Levy announced the initiative. Monday night, police were compiling information on how many cars were stopped and whether any arrests were made.

Violent crime is serious in the four communities. Nine of the county's 33 homicides last year occurred in Central Islip and Brentwood. And following recent meetings about violence in those areas, the FBI said last week it would increase its involvement in the county to reduce gang-related incidents.

Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said he didn't expect the operation to nab gang members at checkpoints but wants to send the message that bad guys are being hunted and to reassure frightened residents.

Police routinely have checkpoints throughout the county, officials said, but will make an unprecedented push in the four communities for daily checkpoints, as weather permits.

Police will use the checkpoints to look for drunken drivers, expired tags and seat belt compliance, officials said. A fixed camera will photograph passing license plates and run them against a database of expired licenses, unregistered vehicles and wanted persons.

Some community residents and elected leaders expressed doubts about the plan, saying it would do little to end violence and could result in profiling.

Even as his critics charged that Levy, who is running for governor, takes an interest in the communities only when it suits his purposes, he said his detractors are the ones playing politics with public safety. Several times he insisted that he had the interests of residents in mind.

Even those who seek tougher measures weren't convinced.

Erica Boynton, whose 15-year-old son was fatally shot in Brentwood in November, called the plan "a waste of time" and said far stronger action is needed.

"We need to get these gangs off the streets," Boynton said. "They still roam the streets killing people. Since it didn't happen to his family, he don't care."

And Jeff Frayler, president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, said, "I don't know how a license plate reader will determine whether somebody is in a gang or not. The question is, where they are going to get the police for this."

Dormer said checkpoints can require up to five officers and will be staffed without taking patrol cars off the street or racking up sizable overtime costs. Instructors from the police academy and rotating special units will be tapped to help cover checkpoint duties, he said.

Although Dormer and Levy said profiling would not take place at the checkpoints, Andrea Callan, Suffolk chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said those promises can sound hollow for minorities who have experienced Suffolk's history of ethnic and racial tension. Callan said checkpoints are lawful under two conditions: Stops must be random or based on reasonable suspicion,

With Reid J. Epstein

and Bart Jones

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