Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy stood with drug rehabilitation advocates and police Thursday to announce what he called an aggressive effort to combat a surge in heroin use among Long Island's youth.
The most dramatic element of the 10-point plan unveiled at a Hauppauge news conference was the creation of a Suffolk police heroin task force, drawing 31 officers and detectives from the county's seven precincts and narcotics squad. There were also plans for more anti-drug education and a pledge to push for new requirements on health insurers to pay for rehab.
New funding was largely absent, except for a $175,000 county grant to the Prevention Resources Center at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville.
Some said Levy has been too slow to act. In Nassau, a summit on the heroin problem was held in July.
"I think there's now been enough pressure put on Levy to act after he's done nothing for a while," said Richard Buckman, an executive board member of Long Island Recovery Advocates.
But for Levy, Thursday's news conference marked not the beginning of his administration's anti-heroin efforts, but an escalation of them.
"This is a major problem, and we have to make sure it is dealt with in a very aggressive way," Levy said.
Or, as Suffolk's Chief of Detectives Dominick Varrone said: "We are waging a war against heroin dealing and heroin."
The tough talk underscores the frustration felt by county officials, rehab centers, schools and families as heroin - a highly addictive drug that has increasingly become available as street prices drop - exacts a devastating toll in the suburbs. At least 1,068 people died from opiate overdoses on Long Island from 2004-2008.
The parents of one such victim, Natalie Ciappa, 18, showed up at the news conference to support Levy. "We need ammunition to fight this," said Victor Ciappa of Massapequa.
The police initiative will focus the department's narcotics squad heavily on heroin. Of the unit's 38 detectives, 15 will be dedicated to investigating heroin on the new task force, along with three detective sergeants. Another six detectives and seven officers stationed in precincts will report to narcotics commander Det. Lt. William Burke.
Their charge will be to "go back into the communities and work on tips we get," Varrone said.
Treatment advocates, who are often critical of police-first anti-drug initiatives, said they were encouraged to see efforts at prevention and rehab included in the plan.
New support groups for adolescents abusing drugs but considering treatment will be created. The county also will support more "sober" social events, such as the dance held recently in Deer Park for recovering addicts.
The county unveiled a new guidebook with information about recognizing signs of drug use in children, the treatment and support options available and how and when to contact law enforcement. Community forums on those topics will be held soon.
Police and social workers who work with children on drug awareness in elementary and middle school will take their work into the high schools.