A Long, Windy Road

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Drivers traveling on either the Long Island Expressway or Sunrise Highway who are surprised to see Suffolk County deputy sheriff’s vehicles on traffic duty should understand that a lot was involved in creating this scenario.

The story begins with Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy asking last year for Albany to provide New York State Troopers to patrol the LIE and Sunrise Highway, or reimburse the county the $12 million it spends each year doing the job. He pointed out that State Troopers patrol two of the other major state highways in Suffolk County—the Southern and Northern State parkways—and, also, that Albany reimburses some upstate counties for patrolling state roads. But the state, facing serious financial problems, balked at the request.

Then Mr. Levy decided to pull members of the Suffolk County Police Department’s Highway Patrol from LIE and Sunrise Highway patrol duty—citing their high salaries—and transferred the task to the lesser-paid deputy sheriffs.

By doing this, Mr. Levy challenged the powerful union that represents Suffolk County’s Highway Patrol officers, and struck a raw fiscal nerve that he and some others in county government have been concerned about for years: the arbitration process that has caused Suffolk County police officers to be among the highest paid in the nation.

The pay increases involving Suffolk County police officers and those in neighboring Nassau County can best be described as a seesaw, with the unions representing each department’s officers pointing to the other department while seeking and getting paid more.

The police officers of New York City, says Mr. Levy, who are “under fire every day and not making enough money,” should be the baseline. Instead, the pay of Nassau and Suffolk cops “leapfrog” each other, and the police pay “pendulum has swung [too] far on Long Island.”

Of course, the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association and other Suffolk police unions argue that being a police officer is an arduous job, and that serious injury and death are constantly faced here, too. They also say that Suffolk cops deserve they pay that they get.

Today, the starting pay for a Suffolk County Police Department officer is $58,000 and, according to Mr. Levy, after five years “the base [salary] is almost $100,000, not including benefits or overtime.” The average salary and benefits of a Suffolk cop is $160,000 annually. Meanwhile, deputy sheriffs, he says, cost about “$42,000 less per officer.”

Another wrinkle: Suffolk County Highway Patrol officers are paid through the western Suffolk police district. Although it is called the Suffolk County Police Department, its uniformed members only cover western Suffolk.

These uniformed officers—including those on Highway Patrol—do not cover the East End, nor a number of western Suffolk villages where a majority of citizens voted, along with those on the East End, not to disband their local police forces and join in the Suffolk County Police Department when it was formed in 1960.

Police district taxes are very high. In Brookhaven Town this year, for example, the average homeowner is paying $900 in police district taxes. But deputy sheriffs are paid through the countywide general fund. So by having deputy sheriffs patrol both the LIE and Sunrise Highway, the burden of this cost has been broadened to include all property owners in the county.

An obvious question: What were all those deputy sheriffs who now patrol the LIE and Sunrise Highway doing before getting reassigned?

Mr. Levy says that “the sheriff had just gotten a new class through” and thus additional deputies were available for the highway work. Moreover, he says, “the sheriff has much more flexibility” than Suffolk’s police commissioner who, because of “contractual” limits, cannot switch the assignments of many officers.

The 55 Highway Patrol officers replaced by deputies have been sent to regular patrol duties in the Suffolk County Police district.

Meanwhile, the man in the middle of all this is Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer, who is now under assault from all the Suffolk police unions for facilitating the switch that Mr. Levy ordered. Mr. Dormer, who worked his way up the ranks in the Suffolk Police Department, starting as a patrolman in 1963, has been removed from his status as a retired union member—threatening his union-arranged life insurance, and dental and vision benefits.

So when you see one of those black-and-white sheriff’s cars patrolling the LIE or Sunrise Highway, consider how we got here—and then get your eyes back on the road, because the deputies give tickets, too.

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