By David M. Schwartz
SUFFOLK COUNTY, N.Y. — The Suffolk County Police Department calls a bill that would require top brass to have a college degree "unnecessary."
But Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a retired Suffolk police detective who is sponsoring the measure, says boosting education requirements would bring Suffolk into line with local departments with higher standards.
"Law enforcement has changed over the years. Standards have changed," Trotta said.
Tuesday, the bill comes before the Suffolk County Legislature. It is opposed by the leader of the majority Democrats and faces uncertain prospects.
The legislation would require deputy inspectors and higher ranks to hold a bachelor's degree. The law applies to current and new officers, who would have up to seven years to secure a bachelor's and up to 10 years to obtain an advanced degree.
Deputy chiefs, the deputy commissioner and police commissioner would be required to have an advanced degree or 20 years in a state or federal agency.
The bill would also mandate other requirements for top officers. Deputy inspectors and higher ranks would not be able to have substantiated complaints of serious misconduct against them. The commissioner, deputy commissioner, chief and chief of detectives also would have to get top security clearance from the FBI.
Requirements vary around the region. Currently, Suffolk County requires a high school degree or equivalency to join the force. New York City police officers at the rank of captain or above must have a bachelor's degree. New officers with the department must have 60 college credits or two years of military service. The Nassau County Police Department requires new officers to have 32 college credits and gives preference in promotions to those with additional college course work.
State troopers are required to have 60 college credits, or two years of military service and 30 college credits to be hired. The Westchester County Department of Public Safety requires a minimum of a high school diploma.
Trotta said he designed the bill to increase requirements only for the top echelon of the department. Legislative Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) said the bill is aimed at Chief James Burke, who doesn't have a college degree. Burke has faced allegations that he assaulted a Smithtown man who was accused of taking department-issued equipment from Burke's vehicle. Burke has denied the allegation.
Burke and Commissioner Edward Webber did not respond to interview requests.
Suffolk Deputy Chief Kevin Fallon said the "vast majority" of deputy inspectors higher ranks already have at least four-year degrees.
Fallon said 1,400 of the 2,358 officers on the force hold at least a two-year degree.
"The Suffolk County Police Department believes this bill is unnecessary," Fallon said.
Timothy Morris, president of the Superior Officers Association, said the current system works well. "Past practices have revealed that rising through the ranks has been a strong positive," Morris told county lawmakers last month.
The superior officers group and the Police Benevolent Association also said Trotta's measure would violate the terms of the latest contract with senior police officials, which the legislature passed in March.
Gregory said the matter should be settled in collective bargaining.
"It's almost elitist to suggest that in order to act in a moral way with character and integrity, you need a college education," Gregory said in an interview. He said Trotta is implying that the department is dysfunctional, "when he is really targeting Chief Burke."
Trotta said he has been troubled by reports of the allegations against Burke, adding, "I consider it an embarrassment to the hardworking men and women of the Suffolk County Police Department."
John Eterno, director of graduate studies in criminal justice at Molloy College in Rockville Centre and a retired NYPD captain, told lawmakers that "higher education is critical. It professionalizes the police department." Eterno has a doctorate in criminal justice.
Frank Ashby, a management consultant, told legislators county police officers "are already among the best paid in the country. It's not unreasonable to ask that they be among the best educated, the best credentialed, and the most credible and professional."
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service