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NASSAU COUNTY, N.Y. -- To some of the officers who patrol the Long Island Expressway, it's known as The Big Road.
The name refers as much to the staggering traffic - more than 150,000 cars per day in some spots - as it does the sizable challenges of policing the highway's multiple lanes.
"You've got motorists that are broken down ... the HOV lane is a zoo, people zip in and out of there, the volume of traffic is an issue," said Donald Kane, a former Nassau police commissioner who led the county's highway patrol unit for several years in the 1980s. "In the years that I was up there we had a number of officers injured just doing their job."
The risks of patrolling one of the region's busiest corridors have become a topic of heated debate this month as black-and-white sheriff's deputy units replaced Suffolk County police cruisers all along the eastern half of the LIE and Sunrise Highway.
The question now is whether deputy sheriffs are up to the job.
Critics have said that the deputies lack the proper training to patrol such a busy highway, but supporters of County Executive Steve Levy's plan say the deputies are prepared for the task.
Deadlocked in a funding dispute with Albany, Levy pulled his police highway patrol units off the two state-owned roads on Sept. 15, and Suffolk sheriff's deputies immediately filled the void. Levy and Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco insist the deputies, who earn $42,000 per year less than county police officers, have all the training they need to safely perform highway duties.
'It's a very complex job'
Some law enforcement observers say the big road is a bad spot for on-the-job training.
"It's a very complex job up there," said Robert Creighton, a sergeant on the LIE before serving as Suffolk police commissioner in 1992. "You don't just ride up and down the highway and you don't just take a radar gun and write summonses. That's the least important role of the police on the expressway."
Sheriff's deputies attend the same academy as Suffolk police, but until now, the deputies spent most of their time serving orders of protection, transporting prisoners and evicting people.
"They all have the basic training necessary to handle most situations but when you're talking about traffic control and multiple accidents, we don't handle that on a regular basis," said a retired 20-year Suffolk deputy who, because of the controversy, declined to give his name. "It's not your primary function or your primary mission."
The portion of his former Suffolk colleagues who regularly do traffic patrols is "10 percent at most," the deputy said.
Deputies will no doubt learn the ropes, he said, but at the moment, "I don't know if they have all the training they need and I don't know if they have all the equipment they need. I doubt it very seriously."
Most Suffolk police officers spend several years in a precinct before being picked for highway duty, Creighton and others said, and even then there's more to learn.
"After three years there and after 30 years in the department, I was still learning things myself," said Kurt Paschke, 57, of Holbrook, a veteran Suffolk County highway patrol officer who retired in July. "There's a big difference between doing a traffic stop on a residential street compared to doing it on a roadway where the average speed is 70 to 75 miles an hour. It was tougher than I expected. It was a lot more involved than I expected."
A wide range of skills
Among other skills, officers must know how to shut down the expressway quickly, handle multi-vehicle accidents, treat crash victims as first responders, clear the lanes for helicopter landings and - in the event of really nasty pileups - herd traffic backward onto service roads. John Gallagher, who served as Suffolk police commissioner from 1997 to 2004, called that last task "an art in itself ."
But Levy argues that his opponents are overstating the difficulty of highway patrols for political gain.
"You have elements that are trying to scare the bejesus out of people because they don't want anyone stepping on their turf," Levy said. "I don't think the average person believes that it takes some kind of superhuman to pull someone over for speeding or for driving erratically."
The sheriff says his deputies are no stranger to traffic patrols. So far this year they have written 5,000 summonses, arrested 41 suspected drunken drivers and handled about 92 accidents.
"That's not an incredible number," DeMarco said of the accidents, "but they do handle them."
Each shift the sheriff's office deploys the same number of cars as the Suffolk police did - four on the expressway and two on the Sunrise Highway.
During rush hour, two Suffolk police cruisers paid for by New York State will continue patrolling the expressway HOV lanes.
The Sheriff's Office was adding equipment to deputy cars, including five radar guns it has on hand to catch speeders. Like the police, sheriff's highway units carry bottled oxygen, said Michael Sharkey, the sheriff's chief of staff. Unlike the police cruisers, deputy cars aren't yet equipped with defibrillators, he added, "but they will be shortly."
Sharkey dismissed critics who say the deputy cars' black paint jobs and lack of flip-up light bars make them less visible at night than Suffolk's white highway cruisers, which do have such lights. "The State Police don't have them and their vehicles are dark blue," he said.
Veterans of similar highway patrol takeovers elsewhere say the most crucial concern is making sure the transition is handled properly. In 1995, former California Highway Patrol commissioner Dwight Helmick oversaw his 9,000-member force's absorption of 500 state police with little highway experience. There were naysayers, he acknowledged, but he said keeping the organizations "talking closely during the transition" was key.
"Hopefully they focus on what's important," he said. "I hate to see traffic safety become a pawn in a political game."