By Karl Grossman
When you see a Suffolk County deputy sheriff’s vehicle doing traffic duty on the Long Island Expressway or Sunrise Highway, a lot is involved.
The story begins with County Executive Steve Levy asking last year for New York State to provide its troopers to patrol the LIE and Sunrise or reimburse the county the $12 million it spends each year doing it. He pointed out that state troopers patrol two of the other major state highways in Suffolk—Southern and Northern State Parkways—and, also, that the state reimburses some upstate counties for patrolling state roads.
But the state, facing serious financial problems, balked.
Then Mr. Levy decided to pull members of the Highway Patrol of the Suffolk County Police Department from LIE and Sunrise duty—because of their high salaries—and to transfer the task to the lesser-paid deputy sheriffs.Â
By doing this, Mr. Levy challenged the powerful union that represents the Highway Patrol officers and struck a raw fiscal nerve that he and some others in Suffolk government have been concerned about for years: the arbitration process that has caused Suffolk Police Department officers to be among the highest paid in the nation.
It’s been a see-saw between the pay of neighboring Nassau Police Department officers and those of the Suffolk County department—with the unions representing each department’s officers pointing to the other department and seeking and getting more.
The police officers of New York City, says Mr. Levy, “under fire every day and not making enough money” should be the baseline. Instead, the pay of Nassau and Suffolk cops “leapfrog against each other” and the police pay “pendulum has swung so 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, and Suffolk cops deserve what they get.
For a Suffolk Police Department officer now, the starting pay is $58,000 and, according to Mr. Levy, after five years “the base 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 “$42,000 less per officer.”
Another wrinkle: Highway Patrol officers are paid through the western Suffolk police district. Although it’s called the Suffolk County Police Department, its uniformed members only cover western Suffolk.
These uniformed officers—including those on the 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 county police department when it was formed in 1960.
Police district taxes are very high. In Brookhaven Town for 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 the LIE and Sunrise, this cost has been broadened from just western Suffolk property owners to all county property owners.
An obvious question: what were all those deputy sheriffs who now patrol the LIE and Sunrise heretofore doing? Mr. Levy responds 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 the Suffolk Police commissioner who, because of “contractual” limits, can’t switch the assignments of many officers. “The sheriff has the luxury of switching his officers more easily.”
The 55 Highway Patrol officers replaced by deputies have been sent to regular patrol duties in the Suffolk Police district.
Meanwhile, a man in the middle of all this is Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer who is under assault by Suffolk police unions for facilitating the switch 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 ousted 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 on the LIE or Sunrise, consider this—and then get your eyes back on the road because the deputies give tickets, too.