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Suffolk SPCA stops responding to some calls

The Suffolk SPCA has stopped responding to some calls as it battles with the county over fully protecting its officers from lawsuits.

Roy Gross, chief of the nonprofit agency that probes animal cruelty cases, said yesterday that "we need to cut back on our risk" if the county won't offer indemnity, or protections against legal responsibility.

SPCA volunteers have sought blanket protection since 2011 -- when they nearly lost their insurance -- but Suffolk has only agreed to contribute to their premium and narrowly indemnify them for work on a new animal abuse offender registry.

"You can understand if my officers are out there second-guessing themselves in a life-or-death situation, thinking, 'Am I going to be sued?' " Gross said.

Several bills backing indemnification of SPCA officers have failed in the legislature this year, and the agency's talks with County Executive Steve Bellone have yet to yield a deal.

Last week, lawmakers received a letter from SPCA director Gerald Lauber that blamed legislative inaction for his volunteers "being forced to reduce [their] levels of service in the field of humane law enforcement that the entire community has come to expect."

The SPCA will still respond to animal emergencies confirmed by Suffolk police or town shelters, but will forward "all other calls" to the county or towns, Lauber wrote.

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), who chairs the subcommittee that has heard the SPCA proposals, said he has issues with holding harmless armed peace officers who are not under direct county supervision. He noted that the SPCA volunteers respond to calls on the East End, outside Suffolk police jurisdiction, and that blanket indemnification would also leave the county liable for damages in those cases.

The county gives the SPCA $25,000 a year to help cover insurance costs. Some lawmakers suggest limiting indemnification to responses stemming from county requests.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, who backed indemnification as a county legislator, said he hasn't heard of his town's shelter taking more calls. But he said Suffolk will be at fault if problems arise. "It's going to put a burden back on towns and the police department, and it may mean that cases of animal cruelty won't be investigated," Romaine said.

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