Justice Reform: Seeking Officers of Color; Conversations with Cops

Pictured Above: At a June 1, 2020 vigil for George Floyd at Stotzky Park in Riverhead

The lack of officers of color and of communication between the police and communities they serve has been on the minds of residents who’ve spoken up at the latest law enforcement public listening sessions in Riverhead and on the North Fork, as East End town task forces prepare reports required by New York State.

These task forces are being convened all over the state under an executive order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo last June, in the wake of the worldwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, requiring municipal law enforcement agencies to review policing practices “to promote community engagement, to foster trust, fairness, and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.”

Final reports are due to the state by April 1, or local police departments will not receive state funding.

Riverhead Town’s Law Enforcement Advisory Council held two listening sessions Jan. 14. At the evening session, Marylin Banks-Winter, a member of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, pushed back against recent discussions the town has held with its police chief, David Hegermiller, in which the chief and town board members said the town had a difficult time recruiting police officers of color.

Ms. Banks-Winter said professors and staff at Suffolk County Community College’s Selden campus and Eastern campus in Riverhead have been working with physical trainers and ex-police officers to train prospective local police officers for the grueling application process. She said 60 applicants were recently trained.

“They cover application processing, behavior and psychological exams, written communication and physical fitness,” she said. “They receive a full academic experience to prepare them for any type of challenge.”

She added that there are many ways in which applicants can receive a waiver from a non-refundable $125 civil service e-filing fee, including if they file as a head of household on their taxes, are firefighters or EMTs or are eligible for Medicaid or Social Security.

Ms. Banks-Winter said one of the biggest problems applicants faced was the physical fitness test.

“These are 20 to 30-year-olds, who were trained by ex-police officers. We are looking into why our African American men and women are not passing the physical fitness test,” she said.

Robert Ray, who said he was became an activist this past summer, protesting racism in health care, said he had been “forcefully accused of shoplifting” at the Riverhead Costco on Jan. 8 of this year and was shocked by the police response both to the original incident and to a protest he held outside the store the following day.

“I saw six white men chasing me and I didn’t know what was going on,” he said of the original incident, adding that he believed he was targeted because he is Black and over six feet tall. “I’ve never been arrested before and I’ve never been in trouble with the law.”

He said the next day he staged a small protest of about six people outside the store and about 40 Riverhead police officers and state troopers showed up.

“When you’re Black and you see these type of things going on in Riverhead, it goes to show you that six protesters is a concern to the Riverhead Police Department,” he said. “They treat us like animals and thugs and they assume we’re going to loot and shoot. They were prepared for war for six protesters.”

“This is not what the people of Riverhead would like,” he added. “Why are officers so aggressive toward protesters? We are peaceful protesters. We are not doing anything harmful.”

James Freeman, the president of the Gordon Heights Civic Association, said Riverhead needs to hire more officers of color.

“We can’t look at the past and work off of that. We have to create a new future in the way we do policing today,” he said.

He added that his civic association, in a predominantly African American neighborhood near Middle Island, had brought together the Suffolk County Police Department officers who police Gordon Heights with the community for a conversation so that officers would understand the concerns of the community, and the community would understand the concerns of the police.

“What the community didn’t know was how scared a lot of the officers were about approaching a car with multiple individuals in the care,” he said. “Gordon Heights has one of the lowest crime rates in the State of New York, but people worked off misconceptions of what they were told. This was one of the first meetings, but it can’t be the last meeting. You can’t take things in a negative way because you don’t understand or have a perception of where we’re coming from, especially with a person of color.”

Southolders Seek Conversations

At a June 3, 2020 protest in Peconic after George Floyd's death.
At a June 3, 2020 protest in Peconic after George Floyd’s death.

Also on Jan. 14, Southold Town’s Justice Review & Reform Task Force held an in-depth, two-hour listening session with the community, allowing people to share their concerns anonymously. Many of the commenters were white, but said they felt like Southold’s police force was insular and disconnected from their lives in the community

One woman, who said she was a senior citizen, said she was at a Black Lives Matter protest in Peconic in June, and “it seemed like every police officer in the Town of Southold was there.” She said she also went to Greenport to witness the first massive caravan of supporters of Donald Trump that clogged up traffic on a weekend in late September.

“I was standing there getting verbally assaulted looking around for the police, and I was shocked there were no police,” she said. “I thought the presence of police would calm some people down.”

She said she’d also attended a candlelight vigil for George Floyd at Greenport’s Clinton AME Zion Church the night of the Peconic rally where the police presence “was quite appropriate.”

“I felt very unprotected at the MAGA rally, overly protected in Peconic, and in Greenport I felt safe,” she said. “More transparency on decisions around rallies would be helpful.”

She said she had been into the Southold police headquarters in Peconic a few times, and she was disheartened to find the small, outdated public lobby, with a desk where police officers often interview people filing reports, with no privacy.

“That is a sad situation, in that little area, going in trying to get rid of pills,” she said. “If people haven’t stepped into that police station, honestly, it’s worthwhile. It seems as if they need more space.” 

Another women, who grew up in the Bronx, lived in Manhattan for 25 years and has lived in Southold Town full time for 20 years, said she’s “never been so uncomfortable with the police as I am since I moved here.”

“I don’t feel that they’re there to be helpful. I’m always uncomfortable around their presence,” she said. “Yo would think I would have more of that feeling in the city, but I don’t.”

“It is a group of people who know the people that they grew up with, that have had issues related to black and brown people,” she said, adding that she’d seen some interactions between police and people of color when she worked at Community Action Southold Town. 

“There’s a suspicion that comes when the police come in — it was more about what did you have to do with bringing this problem about?” she said.

Another woman, who lives across the street from a school, said last summer she saw some black and brown kids breaking glass in the school parking lot, and though they stopped when she asked them to, she realized that “if they didn’t stop I wouldn’t call the police because I think the police would overreact and that would cause trouble for them.”

She added that, one time after a storm, her basement filled with water and she had been told the volunteer fire department would pump it out. She left a message saying she needed help, then waited and waited but the fire department didn’t show up. She soon saw firefighters pumping out the basement of a house nearby. When she asked them to pump out her basement, she said, she was told they were only taking care of their own. 

“I said I hope our house never catches on fire! I don’t think they’ll ever be coming back here,” she said. 

Another woman said the small police force “hasn’t been transparent for a very long time,” adding that she believes the police department shouldn’t have been put in charge of investigating a large retirement party for a Southold police officer that was held last summer in violation of Covid-19 public gathering rules.

“There’s no way Chief Flatley could have investigated his own police force. I don’t feel he should have been asked to do that,” she said.

She added that she supports an effort underway to get the Southold Police Gepartment accredited by New York State, which had been stymied in the past because of the cost of having a sergeant oversee the accreditation process.

She also suggested that individual officers could be assigned to different communities, building relationships in neighborhoods throughout Southold.

Brian Mealy, a member of the task force who also served on the Mattituck-Cutchogue School Board, said he’s seen firsthand the benefit of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in local schools, and praised in particular the work done by Southold Police Sergeant Bill Brewer, who many students know from his work as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer prior to the establishment of the SRO program.

“Knowing we have officers in our schools talking to our young people, that for me is the community connection,” he said, adding that these officers have special training in community relations. “We unveiled the SRO program in our community in a way that would decrease the fear factor.”

One member of the task force, Liz Gillooly, said that, in the future, as part of their community service role, Southold could employ a Crisis Response Unit, with people trained in mental health issues, although most communities that have crisis response units are larger than Southold.

Carolyn Peabody, who co-chairs the justice task force, suggested that Southold police officers could go door to door introducing themselves to residents, a project that has been underway in the Suffolk County Police Department.

Valerie Shelby, who co-chairs the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force and also serves on the justice review committee, was skeptical of the idea of officers going door-to-door unless residents were notified of why they were visiting. She also said she’d been skeptical in the past of having police officers in schools, though she was heartened to hear it had a positive impact.

Ms. Shelby also recommended concerned residents attend the ABTF’s annual Synergy conversation between the community and the police. 

“With this defunding the police thing, people thought all of a sudden we were attacking the police, she said. “But [in Southold] it was a continuation of an open conversation with the police.”

“With Synergy, if you have 25 people in a room and you all have similar concerns, it’s helpful,” said Mr. Mealy. 

“Many of us have a sentiment that we want to maintain the beloved community, and I’m so proud of the folks who had the courage to chime in,” he added. “If we don’t talk about issues, we’ll never solve them. There is hope. Never stop telling your stories. Everything we’ve heard is not good, but it informs our work.”

Southold’s Justice Review & Reform Task Force is asking the public to respond to an anonymous survey online at southoldjusticetf.org. Riverhead’s Law Enforcement Advisory Panel is accepting public comments by emailing moore@townofriverhead.gov.

Southampton Town has also prepared an online survey for its Community Law Enforcement Review Committee, which is available at www.southamptontownny.gov/1456/CLERC-Survey.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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