Suffolk County is redeploying the police department’s anti-gang investigators from a centralized unit back into the seven precincts to make it easier to gather intelligence and be more engaged with communities, County Executive Steve Bellone announced Tuesday in Huntington Station.
Bellone called the move to decentralize the unit a “major step forward.” The department-wide unit was put in place by former County Executive Steve Levy and then-Police Commissioner Richard Dormer in 2009. In effect, the precinct-level gang unit model is a return to past police practices.
“In order to be effective against gangs we need to have the intelligence on the ground to understand what they’re doing,” said Bellone. “You can’t do that based in headquarters.”
He said 39 police officers are headed to local precincts, along with six sergeants and one lieutenant. The county executive was joined by Acting Police Commissioner Edward Webber, community advocates and several local officials for the announcement.
The press conference drew a small crowd of community leaders who have grown concerned about gang violence in the area, which led to the closure of the Jack Abrams School in 2010.
“We are determined to fight them,” Webber said of the gangs. “We can’t let them take over the streets.”
The police commissioner noted that the anti-gang unit is shifting to “intelligence-led policing,” which includes real-time reporting of offenses to commanders as quickly as possible. Webber added that the move will give commanders more resources to address the gang issue on a daily basis.
The unit will also meet with community leaders, Webber said.
The shift in strategy comes four months after the Department of Justice letter that recommended that the police department focus its anti-gang efforts on the local level, “using re-established local precinct anti-gang units and street crime sections.”
“Having a centralized gang unit can severely limit SCPD’s ability to develop relationships with the community or to create preventative interventions,” the letter reads. That letter came as DOJ has been investigating Suffolk police response to hate crimes under the Levy administration.
When Levy was still in office, he responded to the letter—and to the criticism from Bellone after he won the election—saying he and Dormer opposed the effort to decentralize the gang unit, citing statistics that showed more gang member arrests since the centralized unit was established.
Critics argued that centralizing the gang unit took officers off the streets and alienated the public.
“We want to prevent crimes from happening,” said Webber. “We don’t just want to go out and arrest people.”