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North Fork towns look to outsource police policy changes, training

A plan to outsource police policy making to a California-based company is quickly gaining traction on the East End.

Last month, Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley pitched hiring Lexipol, a consulting firm used by police, EMS and fire departments in 35 states, to help oversee the department’s accreditation process and make sure policies are up to date. The move also comes in the wake of an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo that requires municipalities adopt a policing reform plan by next April.

The firm was discussed again at a Southold work session Tuesday, where Lexipol representative Jessica Levenberg demonstrated how the program works.

“There’s constantly updates in New York State,” Ms. Levenberg said, adding that policy changes often have ripple effects throughout the entire manual that need to be addressed. “That’s where a lot of people get into trouble because then they have inconsistencies in their policy manual.”

Ms. Levenberg said the policies are written to be concise and easy to understand.

“A lot of policy today is written to really appease attorneys and that’s what the problem is,” she said. “A typical officer, if they wanted to read [legalese] they would have become an attorney.”

Sgt. Scott Latham, who is currently handling accreditation in Southold, said Lexipol’s services would aid the process. Of 345 metrics needed to become accredited, Ms. Levenberg said Lexipol’s policies already meet 320 of them.

But he also spoke to the long-term benefits of using Lexipol through daily training sessions built into the program.

Thirty training assessments would be assigned each month on topics ranging from domestic violence calls to traffic stops meant to keep officers up to date on protocols.

“Quite honestly, you get your policy manual as a probationary officer, read it, sign off on it, put it in your briefcase and you don’t see it again until there’s an update to the policy,” Mr. Latham said.

While the chief will be able to track which officers have completed the trainings, Ms. Levenberg noted that the system does not keep track of their scores.

“We don’t keep track of wrong answers, because that would just be too much liability on you guys,” she said, adding that the intent is to build “muscle memory.”

“Even if they look up the answer, the benefit has been reaped,” Councilman Jim Dinizio said.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar confirmed Friday that Riverhead is also considering hiring the company. “If there’s a new law or training tactic, they will review it and ensure that it becomes part of the Riverhead department’s procedures,” she said.

Riverhead police chief David Hegermiller believes using Lexipol will aid transparency. “These are tried and true policies,” he said Tuesday.

The company is already working with 120 departments in New York, including Shelter Island, Sag Harbor, Quogue, Southampton and the Suffolk County Police Department, according to Ms. Levenberg.

The privatization of establishing police policy has been criticized for lack of transparency and public input and some of Lexipol’s policies have been called into question by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 2017, the ACLU of California sent a letter to Lexipol demanding it eliminate “illegal and unclear directives,” that they say led to racial profiling and harassment of immigrants.

In response to a question posed by Southold Councilwoman Sarah Nappa on whether the company has addressed feedback from the ACLU, Ms. Levenberg argued that in those cases, individual departments made amendments to Lexipol’s policies that were inadvisable. “Because it’s customizable, that department went against what we said,” she said.

Lexipol primarily markets itself as risk management against potential liability in lawsuits that also keeps abreast of policy updates. Ms. Levenberg insists Lexipol’s policies are “defensible and well written.”

“The reason why a department gets in trouble is not because somebody followed policy,” she said. “In the case of George Floyd, their policy did not say that officer’s behavior was acceptable.”

Discussions on updating police policies come as communities across New York also grapple with Gov. Cuomo’s reform plan. Under the executive order, local governments must draft the plans with community input from stakeholders or risk losing state funding.

Last month, the Southold Town Board appointed 14 community members, as well as two representatives from the village of Greenport and town’s police advisory committee to its police and justice system review task force as part of Gov. Cuomo’s “New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative.”

Riverhead is also in the process of creating a task force to review police procedures in order to comply with the governor’s recent mandate.

Ms. Aguiar said the task force would consist of elected officials, law enforcement, legal advisors, clergy, business owners and community groups. “It will not be a political group with single-minded individuals who do not reflect the entire community,” she said, adding that she envisions the force having 11 members who will be appointed by Town Board resolution within the next few weeks.

An advisory group headed by Councilwoman Jodi Giglio that deals with civil service diversity will also report to the task force.

“We’ve known this forever, but we have a problem with diversity on the police department,” Chief Hegermiller said, noting that the hiring process is beyond town control since it relies on a civil service test, background check and other “intensive” procedures.

There is currently one Black police officer in the department, which also hired its first Hispanic police officer within the last decade. “It’s not reflective of the community,” Mr. Hegermiller conceded.

According to cost estimates provided to Southold Town, the Lexipol service could cost an initial $27,000 to set up and also carries an annual fee of around $12,000. Supervisor Scott Russell said he included funding for the service in his proposed 2021 budget.