Police Reform Groups Seek Community Input

Attempts to comply with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative are underway on the East End. 

East Hampton and Southold towns are holding listening sessions with the community in upcoming weeks, and Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar unveiled the members of Riverhead’s Law Enforcement Advisory Panel on Oct. 15, describing the effort as “an unfunded state mandate by the governor.”

Back on June 12, just two weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, while the nation was awash in protest, Governor Cuomo announced the police reform initiative, which requires local police agencies to work with their communities to review their policing policies “to promote community engagement, to foster trust, fairness, and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.”

Each law enforcement agency and its community must prepare a report by April 1 of 2021 or the agency will not be eligible for state funding.

Riverhead’s advisory panel’s core members include Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller; Councilman Frank Beyrodt, who is the town board’s liaison to the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force (ABTF); ABTF Chairwoman Connie Lassandro; Robert Ramos, a business owner and ABTF member; ABTF member Sarah Mayo; Church of the Harvest Food Pantry director Gwen Mack, community members Jeremy Hobson, Carlos Flores and Dwayne Eleazer, Deputy Town Attorney Daniel McCormick, Patrica Theodorou from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office and Riverhead Youth Court Public Defender Lane Bubka.

At the Riverhead Town Board’s Oct. 15 work session, Ms. Aguiar, a retired NYPD Detective Sergeant in the agency’s Counter Terrorism Division, said “this is an all inclusive panel and the entire community will have input into this task force. We will have online surveys and a panel. We want to thank each member — we know you are doing this on your own time for the betterment of our community.”

Ms. Aguiar added that many Riverhead police officers live in and engage with the community, unlike officers in other areas in Suffolk County.

Police Chief Hegermiller, who was at the work session, said he is a supporter of body cameras for police officers, but said it would cost his department $160,000 per year. He added that some departments, including Suffolk County, give police officers a stipend for wearing cameras.

“Body cameras have been on the radar fro a long time,” he said. “No one really has them. Westhampton Beach, I think, has them, but they’re a 14-member department. Suffolk County has them, but not the whole force.”

Chief Hegermiller added that he’s been saying for 20 years that the police force has a diversity issue.

“We want to be representative of the community, but we’re not at this point,” he said. “Our hands are tied. We can only hire people who are on the list… It’s very hard to get through the background check. One out of eight to ten candidates make it through.”

“That’s as it should be,” said Town Councilman Tim Hubbard, also a former police officer. “We don’t want a lower standard. There’s enough of those nationwide, as we’ve seen, people who shouldn’t have been there.”

“I took the test in 1984, and I was given a packet of study guides to bring to the First Baptist Church to get more people involved,” he added. “We have been working on this for a long time, to try to get people involved and realize the difference they can make.”

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said that even if candidates score well on the written entrance exam, they still have to pass background checks, agility checks and polygraph tests, and have to be sure to include acknowledging things they may have done wrong when they were minors. She added that the tests are federally regulated, and people who do the psychological exams are well-trained to avoid implicit biases.

“Our town hall is not diverse, our police are not diverse, but our community is,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent. “Outreach into churches is great, and through schools and the guidance department. We need to let people know what a good job it is. It really is key to have more diversity in all of our work forces.”

“Riverhead police officers said they went into the profession because they wanted to do good, but now they’re seen as the enemy, and even mothers with young children pull them away,” she added.

Riverhead’s panel also has advisory members including Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, PBMC President and CEO Andrew Mitchell, Daniel O’Shea of the Maureen’s Haven homeless shelter network, Robyn Berger-Gatson of the Family Service League, Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, retired Suffolk County Corrections Officer Ron Schmitt and Suffolk County Community College Public Safety Director Baycan Fideli.

East Hampton Town also announced this week that its Police Reform and Reinvention Committee will begin work with listening session on Thursday, Oct. 29, in which commenters will call in to a meeting that will be livestreamed on LTV.

“All members of the community and each and every constituency are invited to participate and share comments or opinions on topics such as the police department’s role and relationship with our community; police policies and practices; community policing tactics, including strategies to reduce racial disparities and build trust; police transparency, oversight, accountability, training, and leadership; or any other related topic on which a participant may wish to comment,” according to the town.

The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m., and comment can be called in to 351.888.6331. The meeting will be live on LTV Channel 22, or through a livestream at ltveh.org. 

“While recent events across the country have raised concerns about the actions of individual police officers, and the need for equal access to justice for all, we are extremely proud of our East Hampton Town Police Department’s community policing efforts and relationship with all sectors of the community, and have great confidence in our officers’ fairness and professionalism,” according to a press release issued by the town. “However, there is always room for evaluation and improvement, and the East Hampton Town Board, along with East Hampton Police Chief Michael Sarlo and his staff, intends to engage fully in the process of self-assessment and community dialogue.”

The group will review community needs and concerns; develop policy recommendations, and develop a plan for public comment, which could include ideas for new police department initiatives or policy modifications. The draft plan will be released for public review and comment before a final version is adopted by the East Hampton Town Board. 

The Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force is also inviting the community to “Synergy: An Open & Respectful Conversation Between the Police Department and the Southold Town Community,” in a year when there has been much public controversy due to the lack of police response to complaints about a large retirement party for a town police officer in the middle of this spring’s Covid-19 lockdown.

Southold will also have a kick-off press conference for their task force’s work on Monday, Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. at Silversmith’s Corner (across from the IGA) in Southold.

The Synergy meeting will be held via Zoom on Nov. 18 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. 

The Zoom meeting will be at https://zoom.us/j/5512639776?pwd=UC9jQmk5WG9LbWNUTlhtV0p3anJBQT09. The Meeting ID is 551 263 9776, the passcode is 594188 and the phone number to call in without a computer is 646.558.8656.

The state’s resource guide for the reform effort, for citizens and public officials, is online here.

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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