A renewed battle appears to be brewing over who should patrol the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway in Suffolk County, with county police and the sheriff's office jockeying in anticipation of a review by new County Executive Steve Bellone.
Since Thanksgiving, Sheriff Vincent DeMarco has issued news releases trumpeting a decline in fatalities since he took over the highways from police more than three years ago -- and promising a further reduction this year.
Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president Jeff Frayler accuses DeMarco of "manipulating numbers for his own gain" and says police were more productive when they had the job.
The tussle is an extension of a fight that erupted in 2008 when then-County Executive Steve Levy, a foe of police unions, ended police highway patrols. Levy turned them over to sheriff's deputies when a deal to get the state to take over the roads stalled. Levy says the switch saved Suffolk $8 million to $10 million a year because deputies are paid less than the police officers.
With Bellone in office, police see a chance to get the job back. Bellone, whom Suffolk police unions backed strongly in the November election, questioned Levy's savings claims during the campaign and promised to review whether the highway job should be returned to the police.
Some see DeMarco's recent news releases as a pre-emptive strike. "It sounds to me like a marketing ploy," said Paul Sabatino, a former chief deputy county executive under Levy and former legislative counsel. "It's an opening salvo in a battle to win the hearts and minds of Bellone and his administration."
DeMarco said he is simply touting the good work of his deputies, calling his statistics "newsworthy and interesting. The public should know about these things."
Frayler said he wants a review to determine whether deputy overtime costs have risen and other sheriff's functions such as prisoner transport have suffered since deputies took over the highways.
Noting that the county police department was formed in 1960 as a solution to jurisdictional problems among the departments of 10 towns, Frayler also said, "The argument is and always has been that multiple-jurisdiction police doesn't work. . . . The whole reason the Suffolk police department was formed was to get away from multijurisdictional policing."
Levy, seeking to buoy his final budget, inked an agreement in September with the deputy sheriff union to keep them patrolling the two roadways through 2017. In return, the union agreed to defer $4 million of an $8 million salary arbitration award until 2015 -- the year Bellone has to run for re-election.
With Suffolk strapped for cash, county lawmakers did not make an issue of the pact, though critics say any deal affecting deployment of staff or pay requires legislative approval. Legislative Counsel George Nolan called the issue "open to question."
Jon Schneider, a Bellone spokesman, said the county executive's priority is focusing on Suffolk's budget gap and "reforming the police department to deal with gang violence and prescription drug abuse." The highway patrol issue will wait until Bellone names a new police commissioner, but "we will absolutely review it," Schneider said.
John Gallagher, a former Suffolk police commissioner under Levy and previous County Executive Robert Gaffney, said initial police union complaints that deputies' patrols endangered public safety were excessive, noting that other agencies including the State Police already patrol East End highways and state parkways.
"But there is still the inherent problem [of] putting one law enforcement agency in charge of highways that go right down the spine of another agency's jurisdiction. That kind of split never works well," Gallagher said.
Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) said the police union already has lost the road war and that Bellone "should not waste one second" revisiting the issue. "The sheriff has proved he can do the job very effectively at less expense. . . . I don't see why there has to be any change," Barraga said.
Deputies vs. police
According to data comparing patrols by the Suffolk sheriff's deputies and Suffolk police on the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway:
TRAFFIC TICKETS: In their final 12 months of highway patrols in 2007 and 2008, Suffolk police issued 36,790 summonses -- more than twice the 17,171 that sheriff's deputies wrote in 2011.
FATALITIES: Under police patrols, traffic fatalities between Sept. 15, 2005, and Sept. 15, 2008 -- the date that the deputies took over the highways -- were 27. Under deputy patrols, 19 fatalities occurred between Sept. 15, 2008, and Sept. 15, 2011.
DWI: Deputies made 417 DWI arrests between Sept. 15, 2010, and Sept. 15, 2011, compared to 293 by the police in its last 12 months on the highways. In other years, deputies' DWI arrests were more in line with the final police data; deputies made 294 DWI arrests in 2010 and 308 in 2009.
Source: Suffolk County Police Department, Suffolk County Sheriff's Office