Two of Suffolk's top law enforcement officials said Tuesday that the county needs more police patrols to combat a spate of wrong-way drivers, and one of the officials criticized County Executive Steve Levy's decision to include a police helicopter as part of its efforts.
District Attorney Thomas Spota and Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said at a news conference that the sheriff's office is understaffed - one of several factors, including drunken driving, they said contributed to nine incidents of wrong-way drivers in recent weeks.
"We have a county executive who wants to fly helicopters at night" to monitor unsafe drivers, Spota said. "We don't need to fly helicopters at night," he said, adding the county needs more police patrols.
Earlier this month, Levy announced a ramped-up effort against drunken drivers, including the use of police helicopters, an additional seven officers on patrol, and DWI checkpoints at high-traffic intersections and highway on-ramps.
Dan Aug, Levy's spokesman, said Levy proposed helicopter patrols as one of several efforts to combat wrong-way driving. Those helicopters were already in use and were redirected. He said they would be used to target "strategic locations" where drivers have gone the wrong way.
"There seems to be a misunderstanding about the use of helicopters," Aug said. "This is not being passed off as the solution. It's only part of a multipronged plan."
He said the new seven-officer DWI team became active the day before Thanksgiving and has since made 63 DWI arrests and issued 114 summonses. He added that the sheriff's office now has 173 more people on staff today than it did in 2003, the year Levy took office. "We're doing more than ever before, and the numbers speak for themselves," Aug said.
At the news conference, DeMarco said he believed he had enough deputies two years ago when Levy transferred patrols on the Long Island Expressway and other major roads to the sheriff's office from the county police department as a cost-saving measure.
Since then, he said, he has lost about 17 deputies to attrition. He said 17 new deputies will not be on the streets until May. He said the shortage of deputies made it more difficult to enforce traffic safety laws.
"Suffolk County has maintained the same number of sheriffs on our highways as we had with the police officers," Aug said.
Soon after Spota and DeMarco spoke to reporters, the county Legislature voted 16-2 to give five county agency chiefs, including Spota and DeMarco, authority to hire workers without Levy's oversight.
Speaking about wrong-way driving in general, Spota disputed suggestions that inadequate signage or faulty designs caused Suffolk's roads to confuse drivers.
"People are saying the problem is the intersections," he said. "This is not a case of people who are confused. This is a case of drinking excessively, and that's what the problem is."
With Reid Epstein