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Promoting community relations at center of Southampton Town Police’s reform plan

The need to engage more actively, positively, and often with the community is a refrain throughout the Southampton Town Draft Police Reform Plan. Of 21 recommendations listed in the 282 page plan, a full third related to community outreach.

Convened last summer under a statewide directive,the Community Law Enforcement Review Committee (CLERC) was tasked with reviewing police department policies and philosophies and developing a list of recommendations designed to enhance operations and the community’s relationship with police.

After extensive discussion of CLERC meetings and the topics covered during the meetings, comprising the first 50 pages of the report, a section listing 21 recommendations follows.

Suggestions include collaborating with neighboring departments to craft standardized procedures, and expanding follow ups with community members who’ve interacted with police.

The report calls for enhanced supervision of officers in the field and improved police encounter protocols through focused training emphasizing positive communication.

The CLERC report suggests expanding the kind of sensitivity training School Resource Officers receive to all officers. Training with strategies of handling situations where there’s a language barrier was recommended as was a request that training videos reflect diversity. Committee members noted that in every training clip they watched, the people interacting with officers were white.

Looking at hiring practices, the CLERC underscored the importance of a diversified work force, and recommended improved recruitment tactics and the removal of barriers such as unnecessarily restrictive hiring practices.

The committee’s report and recommendations returned time and again to the issue of community engagement and “getting the word out” about the department’s varied programs. A third of all the recommendations relate to promoting community relations.

The process of formulating the plan was born of a difficult time in the nation, but ends with “a local demonstration of the best in people when, with humility, we work together towards a greater purpose,” reads a letter from Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki, which goes on to thank and praise the appointed stakeholder group chosen to craft the town’s state-mandated police reform and reinvention plan.

The recommendations in the report come from meetings held by the CLERC with discussions of varied aspects of policing, two public surveys, and two sparsely-attended public listening sessions. Members of the CLERC analyzed police procedures and policies, as well as demographics of the town in comparison to the department. The report notes the department’s racial makeup is “fairly representative” of the community — 86.1 percent white, 5.4 percent black, 19.8 percent Latino.

To begin the review, CLERC members examined the perception of police in the community, posting surveys on the town’s website. The first ran from October 28 through December 2, and the second was up from January 20-25. In the second survey, 80 percent of respondents rated police services as very good or excellent. However, the report notes nearly 90 percent of respondents identified themselves as white, and 373 people responded out of a population topping 60,000.

Survey replies revealed most people are unaware of the breadth of community programs the police department runs, such as its child safety seat program, youth court, national night out, and the civilian academy.

Listing internal department programs, the report looks at its drone program, which provides state of the art assistance with locating missing persons or monitoring large crowds. It notes all sector cars have GPS devices and hand held smart phones with translation services partially funded by the advocacy group OLA of Eastern Long Island.

Responding to requests from community members and the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, the department has begun a pilot dashboard and body camera program. One designated vehicle and traffic enforcement car will be equipped with free gear provided by Motorola.

The program will be used to assess the quality of the recording equipment, its ease of use and efficiency of audio and visual storage and retrieval. Running through the end of the year, the program will allow the department to analyze the cost of expanding the equipment to all sector cars and police.

Pressed by CLERC members about the body cameras, Chief Skrynecki said the expense of the backup and storage of the cameras as well as added costs associated with the increased work load required by Discovery reforms that allow admission of body cam footage at trials are all fiscal challenges. Nevertheless, the CLERC was emphatic about including a recommendation for department wide body cameras as soon as it is economically feasible.

Looking at the department’s use of force policies, the first focus for the group was the “Duty to Intercede and Report.” The topic has been the focus of national debate, the report notes. It came to the fore following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police last year. In Southampton, the policy places responsibility on an officer to intercede even when a fellow officer is on the verge of using more force than reasonable.

Police were unequivocal in responding “no” when asked if the same force that killed George Floyd would ever be used by a Southampton Town Police Officer, the report states. The use of deadly force when there is no imminent threat is never permitted, the report informs adamantly.

In December, the CLERC discussed an array of concerns raised by Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island. A section of the report details topics she broached including training officers to better deescalate situations with people of color, better options for responding to at risk youth during non-violent mental health crises, hate crime prosecutions and victim advocacy.

Also in December, CLERC member James Banks, chairman of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, led a youth forum, allowing kids to share their perspective on policing. The youngsters related perceptions created by interactions they or their family members and friends had with police. They also echoed a recurrent theme: There’s a need for greater community involvement and it needs to be more widely publicized. The report makes clear the theme “makes sense in the context of instilling trust and changing negative perceptions, particularly those negative perceptions in response to the bad acts and tragic consequences so widely publicized by the media.”

The CLERC held a forum with police officers in the beginning of January. Six members of the department were invited to answer a series of questions, such as how hearing negative reports about police brutality affect them, how they address implicit biases, and their feelings about body cams.

Officers reported that since the “incident with George Floyd and consequent public outcry,” interactions with minorities have become more difficult, with their motives coming under scrutiny. Motorists would accuse officers of pulling them over because they were Black or Latino. Comments from officers of color and a woman police officer supported the idea that better community trust and relations are engendered when the force is diverse.

The report is posted on the town’s website at southamptontownny.gov.