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Committee hears ways to improve police at second listening session

Riverhead’s Law Enforcement Advisory Panel heard recently about a program that prepares minorities to take and pass police exams, a civic association that’s been working to open the lines of communications between police and the public and a man who claims he’s been racially profiled by police because of his color and his size.

Those were among the topics raised by five speakers during the Riverhead panel’s second Zoom listening session last Thursday night, attended remotely by about 20 people.

The previous listening session, held last Tuesday, also drew about 20 participants, only three of whom spoke. 

The LEAP sessions were organized to hear concerns from the public about policing in the town. They did not follow a question-and-answer format, so officials did not respond to comments. 

LEAP was established in response to an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo requiring all municipalities to adopt a new policing plan by April 1, 2021. 

The following were among those who spoke last Thursday. 

• Marylin Banks-Winter of Riverhead said the police department should look for recruits in the community it is charged to protect. Riverhead’s police department is mostly white, with few minorities, she noted. 

Ms. Banks-Winter said she is involved in a police prep program at Suffolk County Community College that prepares applicants for things like civil service tests, behavioral and psychological exams and physical fitness tests. They also learn problem solving, logical reasoning and other skills, she said.

The program is taught by professors, trainers and ex-law enforcement officers and recently trained 50 applicants at the college. 

“I really want to debunk any kind of statement that African Americans are not being trained to become police officers,” she said. “They are.” 

Ms. Banks-Winter said anyone seeking additional information should reach out to her or her co-chair at the African-American Educational and Cultural Festival, Professor James Banks. 

• Robert Ray of Riverhead said he was at the session last Thursday to talk about an incident that took place Jan. 8 at the Costco in Riverhead. 

“I was falsely accused of shoplifting,” he said. “I am a big Black man and they targeted me and racially profiled me as I was shopping in Costco.”

Mr. Ray, who was involved in organizing some “Black Lives Matter” protests last year, said he is 6-foot, 4-inches tall and weighs about 285 pounds.

The following day, he said, he organized a protest at Costco.

“We were met with about 30 police cars,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” He said there were town and state police cars at the site. “They had about 40 police cars for six protesters. 

“The problem with that situation is when you’re Black and you see these type of things going on in Riverhead, that goes to show you that six protesters is a concern to the Riverhead Police Department. They treat us like dogs, like animals, and they automatically assume we’re going to loot, shoot or whatever, because they are prepared for war for six protesters.” 

• James Freeman, president of the Gordon Heights Civic Association west of Middle Island, described a program his association has established with Suffolk County police to improve communication between police and residents. 

“What we did was to make sure we got those two groups together, the community groups and the police department,” Mr. Freeman said. “Basically, so the police department could see and hear the concerns of the community, but also for the community to hear concerns of the police department and the things that were going on.”

Mr. Freeman said people should know their rights when they get pulled over by a police car. 

One thing people don’t realize, he said, is how scared a lot of officers are about approaching a car with multiple individuals in it. 

“They didn’t think, in their mind, that that officer was worried about who is in that car, and being able to make it home that night,” Mr. Freeman said. The officer has to take into account the individuals in the car.

“They were worried about that officer coming out and approaching them. Because as an individual of color, we don’t know what kind of police officer we are going to get. We don’t know if we’re going to get the officer who is there to protect and serve or are we going to get the officer who is racist and who was brought up that way and is biased and will abuse the authority of the office,” Mr. Freeman said. 

In the county police department’s Sixth Precinct, they had meetings between the police and the community, Mr. Freeman said. Residents assumed that the majority of crime was in minority areas like Gordon Heights, but statistics showed that communities like Coram, Stony Brook, Middle Island and Medford had a lot of the crime, and Gordon Heights had the lowest crime rate, Mr. Freeman said. 

“A police department has to reflect the change that is going on in the community itself, which means they are going to have to hire more officers of color,” Mr. Freeman said. “They have to create a new history because the way the police department was designed in the past was not beneficial for individuals of color that lived in those communities. We can’t look at the past and work off of that. We have to create a new future.”