Southampton is the first local town across the finish line with its Police Reform Plan, mandated by New York State to be completed by April 1, 2021, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
The document runs at more than 260 pages, including appendices, and contains seven pages of recommendations. It is available on the town’s website at southamptontownny.gov.
On Feb. 12, the Southampton Town Board set a public hearing on the Police Reform Plan for March 2 at 6 p.m., in anticipation of approving the final document at its March 23 meeting to be delivered to the governor’s office by April 1.
The recommendations were developed after numerous meetings of the town’s Community Law Enforcement Review Committee, two public listening sessions and two public surveys.
In all, the committee received nearly 900 responses to the surveys, with respondees for the most part saying their biggest concern was public safety and and their top priority was response to emergency calls. Fewer respondees said they had knowledge of the police department’s community outreach programs, and many suggested there should be better communication between the police department and the community.
Recommendations made by members of the committee were wide-ranging. OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez suggested including training in deescalation with youths and people of color, clarification of the manner in which local law enforcement handles hate crimes and training victim advocates with knowledge of issues facing recent immigrants.
The committee also examined the town police Use of Force policies regarding the duty of officers to intercede and report when a fellow officer is violating department Use of Force policies, and found that Southampton’s policy “goes beyond best practices” by requiring the officer intercede and report not just when another officer uses force “beyond what is objectively reasonable,” but also when observing another officer “on the verge” or “potentially” engaging in such behavior.
They also explored the use of the carotid control hold, used to cause a suspect to pass out due to constricted blood flow, which, unlike a choke hold, which restricts air flow, is a permitted police tactic. Police department members pointed out to the committee that “the carotid method was only a feasible solution in the instance where an officer was justified in using deadly physical force, meaning in defense of imminent threat of his own life or that of another.”
They added that, in the case of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, “the knee to the neck by the officer involved in that incident was not a method that is or ever would be allowed.”
The police department has also, in recent years, made changes to its body armor, which is now worn under officers’ uniforms instead of over the uniforms due to feedback that “many people find military style police uniforms intimidating and counterintuitive to the concept that police are present to help the public.”
The department has also recently begun a pilot dashboard and body camera program, used “to examine the quality of the recording equipment, ease of use by the user, the efficiency of audio and visual storage and retrieval and volume of material created.”
The pilot camera program will run through the end of this year, and will be used to estimate the cost of expanding the program to all the department’s sector cars.
Police Chief Steven Skrynecki also shared some of the difficulties the police department has had in hiring a more diverse workforce.
“Every police department in New York is working very hard to hire a more diverse workforce and create an inclusive police department that is more representative of the communities we serve,” according to an email he shared with the committee. “The civil service system creates hurdles and roadblocks in that process. The testing process, rule of 3, physical agility and other rules make for a very rigid hiring process. The lack of flexibility can make hiring diverse candidates impossible. We ask that the legislature reform civil service to a more flexible, agile system allowing law enforcement executives the latitude to hire the best qualified and most appropriate candidates.”
The report outlined police outreach programs ranging from the 16-week civilian academy, in which members of the public learn about police training, policies and procedures, the police department’s role in Citizen Advisory Committee meetings, interactions with the media, the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, School Resource Officers, the National Night Out, Shop with a Cop, the youth Police Explorer program and “coffee with a cop,” which engages officers assigned a beat with the community they patrol.
The report also highlighted the town’s youth court, a diversion program for youthful offenders, substance abuse programs, homeless outreach and domestic violence outreach.
The committee also held a youth forum led by CLERC member James Banks.
The youth “agreed that having a more diversified police force would be a benefit and that they would like to see more police involvement with the community on a day to day basis. They also said they would like to see that involvement more widely publicized and shared,” according to the report.
The development of the document also included a forum in which police officers gave feedback to the committee.
“There seemed to be general agreement that reform should be looked at and that these conversations were necessary,” according to the report. “However, since the incident with George Floyd and consequent public outcry, interactions with the public had become more difficult. Routine traffic stops, now become instances where those pulled over are more frequently questioning the motives of the officer stopping them.”
The committee ultimately recommended the police department open up a wider network of communication and community outreach programs, promote the “human” side of policing, engage with youth, be more visible in the community, improve recruitment tactics, institute social media background checks for prospective officers, reflect greater diversity in its training videos, address language barriers in training, expand sensitivity training, implement the body camera program department-wide, expand diversion programs, enhance supervisory oversight and collaborate with neighboring departments to standardize practices among East End police agencies.
“It was a diverse group and the committee had great discussions. They asked frank, direct questions,” said Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni as the board voted Feb. 12 to set a public hearing on the document. He also thanked Chief Skrynecki for embracing the dialogue.
“The layout of the Southampton Town Police force has always been public information, but I’d like to see this process as educating the public as to what our police do,” said Mr. Schiavoni.
“At first, we looked at this as maybe another unfunded mandate [from the state],” said Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “I think it was really a helpful thing to do this review. I don’t regret it in any way. It’s worth every moment we put in. We learned a lot about our own police department, and also about the public perception of our police department and better ways to serve the public through this process.”
The full document is online here.