For many years there have been hot political issues involving police in Suffolk County the most recent, the loss of the Republican Party line for re-election by incumbent Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter after a campaign by a super-PAC set up by the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association.
Mr. Walter says that the Suffolk PBA spent $125,000 to knock him off the GOP ticket in a move to have the Suffolk County Police Department take over the Riverhead Town Police Department which he opposes.
The GOP primary contest last month was narrowly won by Jodi Giglio, a town board member supported by the Suffolk PBA. RiverheadLOCAL editor Denise Civiletti has reported on how the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation, the political action committee set up by the Suffolk PBA in 2011, conducted a phone and Internet, radio and newspaper advertising campaign against Mr. Walter and for Ms. Giglio.
Mr. Walter told RiverheadLOCAL that a year earlier Suffolk PBA President Noel DiGerolamo threatened that if he refused to put on the ballot in Riverhead a referendum question on merging the towns police department into the Suffolk County Police Department, “we’re coming after you.”And this came to pass. “It’s a move to sell the soul of this town to Hauppauge,”says Mr. Walter. Mr. DiGerolamo denied the threat or, according to the RiverheadLOCAL report, having designs on Riverhead.
But the situation fits into a pattern that is decades old.
Although it’s called the Suffolk County Police Department, in fact it is not the uniformed police force for the entire countyjust the western half of it, and not all of that.
The department came into being in 1960 following a countywide referendum in 1958 in which voters were asked whether they wanted to disband their town and village police departments — the long-time police system in Suffolk — in favor of a county department.
A majority of voters in the five East End towns of Suffolk voted no to that, along with voters in several western Suffolk villages, among them the large villages of Amityville and Northport and several smaller villages such as Nissequogue.
So the new department was based on the five western towns other than the villages where voters said no in the referendum, and it included no East End towns or villages. There was an arrangement, however, for the county department to provide support and specialized services to the retained town and village departments.
Still, there has been a continued focus in expanding the county department to all of Suffolk. This has been pushed by county police unions and Suffolk officials who felt an expansion would help relieve the burden of the county department being financed mainly through a property tax levied on people living in the western Suffolk police district.The most aggressive of these efforts occurred in the early 1980s, led by Anthony Noto of Babylon when he was presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature.
Worsening this financial bind has been members of the Suffolk department becoming ever more well paid — indeed becoming among the highest paid police in the United States. This had a lot to do with Richard Hartman, a clever attorney who represented the Suffolk PBA (and also the Nassau PBA) in contract negotiations. When he died this August, the headline of Mr. Hartman’s obituary in Newsday called him the mad genius of police labor negotiations.
And in recent years, a process of arbitration in setting police salaries — provided by New York State’s Taylor Law — further lifted police salaries. In 2013, former Suffolk legislator Bill Jones of Shinnecock Hills organized a forum focusing on what he termed the “giveaway mentality”of the arbitrators. The top yearly salary of the 2,400 current officers in the county department is $139,324. Superior officers and detectives get more.
Consequently, the Suffolk police district taxes have been going up and up. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone just announced a 2016 budget for Suffolk that doesn’t hike the countywide property tax, and this for the fourth year in a row. But there’s to be increased taxes in the police district — up 3 percent next year, the fourth straight annual jump in police district taxes. The “average homeowner” in the district is now paying $1,165 annually for police services, according to the county.
RiverheadLOCAL has uncovered a Suffolk PBA document telling how after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision —radically expanding the power of corporations and other organizations to contribute to political campaigns — the PBA board of governors retained special election law counsel and set up the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation a PAC that “allows PBA to spend amounts in excess of those permitted to political campaigns. The PBA has very effectively used this money for public awareness.” Mr. DiGerolamo is president of both the Suffolk PBA and the foundation.
What East End town or village will be politically meddled with next?
Says Riverhead Supervisor Walter: “If Riverhead falls they will move east to Southold and then south to the South Fork. The Suffolk PBA believes it in manifest destiny for them to take over all of Suffolk. The battleground is now in Riverhead.”
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.
Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.
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