Suffolk Closeup: County police unions wield great power

It was quite a blast at the power of the Suffolk police unions in The New York Times last month — two full pages with the headline: “The County Where Cops Call The Shots.” The county is Suffolk, and the article was written by Farah Stockman, a member of The Times editorial board. 

It began by quoting a person who cannot be described as “anti-police:” Suffolk Legislator Rob Trotta, “a cranky Republican county legislator on Long Island who worked as a [Suffolk] cop for 25 years,” an “unlikely voice for police reform,” according to the story. 

He’s “full of praise for the rank and file” of the Suffolk County Police Department, “Yet Mr. Trotta,” continued the article, “has railed for years about the political influence of police unions in Suffolk County, N.Y., a place where the cops are known to wield exceptional clout. He’s a potent messenger, since he can’t be smeared as anti-cop. He wore a badge and walked a beat.”  

The piece declared: “Mr. Trotta’s small, quixotic battle on Long Island is part of a much larger struggle in the United States to wrestle power away from police unions that for too long have resisted meaningful reform.”

The article focused on the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association (PBA) — which has long been a proverbial gorilla in the political room in Suffolk County.

Now, I know the Suffolk County Police Department well. My first beat at the daily Long Island Press starting in 1964 was covering cops-and-courts in Suffolk. Every morning included my going to Suffolk Police headquarters, sitting down with its commissioner, John L. Barry, and taking notes about police activities going on, then walking down that first-floor hallway and being with Bill Coleman, deputy chief of detectives, taking more notes, and dropping in and connecting with other top officers. In the field, I covered murders and other crimes and got to know, too, rank and file officers.

In 1969 I was shifted to writing a column on politics and government in Suffolk — that’s how this column began — and how I also got to know, through these now 50-plus years, the ins and outs of Suffolk politics and government.

And Rob Trotta and Farah Stockman are not incorrect.

Suffolk police unions wield, indeed, “exceptional political clout” in the county.

Let me note, please, I’m a union person. As a professor of journalism for 43 years at the State University of New York, I’ve been a member of United University Professions, the union that represents SUNY faculty and much of staff, and at The Press a Newspaper Guild member.

Ms. Stockman tells of Mr. Trotta, of Fort Salonga in Smithtown, describing “politics as broken” in Suffolk “because police unions’ donations have been able to purchase deference from politicians.”

Newsday has picked up on this issue, too. “Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation spends big in Suffolk,” was the headline of a 2016 story in Newsday. The piece by David Schwartz began: “A super PAC run by Suffolk County police unions has built a multi-million-dollar campaign operation, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to help elect local candidates and boost its clout on law enforcement issues. Funded with $1-a-day mandatory fees from approximately 2,500 police department members, the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation regularly outspent candidates it targeted for defeat in recent elections.”

A Newsday article last year by Michael Gormley began: “The Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association Inc. has become one of Long Island’s most powerful political forces, contributing millions of dollars to campaigns in direct spending or through a related group the union controls despite restrictions on campaign spending, according to records and political financing experts.”

The Suffolk Police Department came into being in 1960 following a countywide referendum in which voters were asked whether they wanted to disband their town and village departments — long the system in Suffolk — in favor of a county department.

A majority of voters in the five East End towns of Suffolk voted no, along with voters in several western Suffolk villages. So, the Suffolk County Police Department is the only uniformed force in the five towns of western Suffolk (outside of these villages). However, it provides specialized services — deployment of its Homicide Squad and Arson Squad, as examples — in all of Suffolk. Through the years county police department unions have sought to enlarge the department. In 2015 the Suffolk PBA helped finance a move to have the Suffolk Police Department take over the Riverhead Town Police Department. Earlier, the police unions, working with the then presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, Anthony Noto of Babylon, campaigned to have the county department expand and take in all the East End — including Shelter Island.