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Suffolk police need oversight

Suffolk Police Headquarters in Yaphank on Nov. 26,

Suffolk Police Headquarters in Yaphank on Nov. 26, 2019. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Last year, then-Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart told Newsday that establishing a fair promotions process is one of the county’s final hurdles to being released from a federal consent decree. The agreement mandates that the Justice Department oversee personnel practices.

But even with that oversight, a dishonest process continued.

Earlier this month, Newsday revealed that a sergeant seeking promotion to detective sergeant, Robert Strecker, received five pages of prepared questions he’d face, and their answers, before meeting with an interview panel.

Two days earlier, Newsday revealed unsealed court records showing that during the federal corruption trial of former District Attorney Thomas Spota and a deputy, Christopher McPartland, prosecutors wanted to introduce evidence that the men plotted with former police chief James Burke to get rid of former county executive Steve Levy because he was "anti-cop."

Levy, always at war with police unions, was pushed into not seeking reelection by Spota and forced to return $4 million in campaign donations. The unsealed documents allege Levy was blackmailed by Spota; however, the judge did not allow the information to be introduced and Levy has never detailed why he agreed to the scenario.

The information Strecker received was compiled by the staff of Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante. Recently, Gigante’s nephew failed to get a plum promotion Hart supported to head the Suffolk District Attorney’s detective squad, a position for which he was technically unqualified, when the county legislature denied a nepotism waiver.

This manipulation is possible because a misguided state law leaves promotions to detective and detective sergeant to the discretion of the police commissioner, not Civil Service tests.

Newsday also reported Strecker got Suffolk Conservative Party leader Mike Torres to ask county Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer to intercede with Gigante to get his promotion. Schaffer reportedly did not reach out to Gigante.

But in his role as Babylon Town supervisor, Schaffer did hire Gigante in January to consult on public safety for up to $50,000, before a Newsday story upended the agreement.

And Strecker did get the help. The promotion process has been halted and an Internal Affairs investigation initiated.

The deceit in Suffolk County law enforcement is like an iceberg in the fog. We know it is there, we sometimes catch glimpses, but most of the danger is hidden. The Strecker scheme is almost penny-ante compared to the scale of the rest of the wrongdoing.

Burke’s past included drug use, impaired driving and a 1,000-page Internal Affairs file. His elevation to chief, orchestrated by powerful police unions and political bosses, shouldn't have happened. Now he, Spota and McPartland are gone, but the iceberg remains. The culture is unchanged, the surviving power players undaunted, and the effects can vary from police promotions to kiboshing county executives.

This is no time for less oversight. What’s needed is far more.

— The editorial board