Suffolk to Implement Police Reforms

Every municipality that has a police department in New York State spent much of last year scrambling to put together comprehensive plans to improve community-police relations, in response to an executive order issued by former Governor Andrew Cuomo in the wake of the uproar over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May of 2020.

Those plans were due to be turned in to the state this past spring in order for municipalities to keep their state funding, and after they were turned in, the public’s eye turned to numerous other pressing issues. But the work outlined in those plans continues.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced Dec. 1 that the county had reached an agreement with its Police Benevolent Association to require Suffolk County police officers to wear body cameras supplied by the department.

The county plans to spend $24 million over the next five years to purchase and maintain the cameras, along with the data systems necessary to store the video files generated by the cameras. Each officer will also receive a $3,000 stipend to wear the cameras, which will be phased in over the next two years.

“It was a very long process. At times it was heated, and there were some conversations that were uncomfortable,” said Suffolk County PBA President Noel DiGerolamo of the negotiations. “I’m honored to represent my membership on the task force, because we were able to have a dialogue about viewpoints, objectivity and how things are viewed between the public and law enforcement.”

“I believe public safety and justice go hand in hand,” said Mr. Bellone. “We can keep our streets safe and have real accountability (over the police).”

Mr. Bellone said the agreement also includes new 911 infrastructure to divert mental health-related calls to mental health professionals, expansion of crisis intervention training, having civilian personnel at the front desk at county police precincts and providing civilian oversight of the county police department through the county’s Human Rights Commission.

The mental health crisis response component is in part a collaboration with the Family Service League, which recently opened a new 24/7 crisis center, the Diagnostic, Assessment and Stabilization Hub (DASH), at 90 Adams Avenue in Hauppauge, to help people in crisis or who are overwhelmed by issues with substance use or mental illness. The Family Service League also has mobile crisis teams ready to respond to traumatic situations.

The county has also included more than $1 million in its 2022 operating budget for mental health services, including a behavioral health unit within the Suffolk County Police Department.

On the oversight side, said Mr. Bellone, the county is hiring three new human rights investigators to review complaints against the police department.

“We want to deemphasize minor equipment violations and parking summons, and have the police in the community, walking and talking and engaging,” said Mr. Bellone. “Policing is a sacred duty. This will ensure that communities have trust in the people who police them.”

While the Suffolk County Police Department does not patrol the East End, where each of the five towns and several villages have their own police departments, departments here are also continuing the work laid out in the police reform plans.

One innovative approach to this involves caring for the mental health of police officers.

East Hampton Village Mayor Jerry Larson, who served as the village’s police chief for 14 years, helped launch a new mental health initiative for village police officers, requiring a mandatory mental health screening at least every three years.

Mr. Larson made the announcement Dec. 7. 

“Officers see a lot of trauma on the job from horrible accidents and suicide to domestic abuse and drug overdoses that deeply affects their psyche and ability to do their job,” he said in a statement announcing the program, adding that, even though counseling services have been available to the officers, many have been ashamed to seek therapy due to stigma. “With mandated evaluations, we take away the stigma and allow each and every officer to express their emotions in a safe environment on a regular basis. They are able to get the counseling that they need and cannot be singled out.”

At the launch of this program, officers will work with East Hampton therapist and licensed clinical social worker Mary Bromley, who has a long history of counseling officers both in East Hampton Village and the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Unit.

Occupational stress on police officers has been shown in studies to be directly related to higher rates of heart disease, divorce, sick days taken, alcohol abuse, and major psychological illnesses such as acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorder.

East Hampton Village’s program is set to launch at the beginning of the year. In addition to the mandatory screening, counseling and support services are available to the officers as needed. 

“The East Hampton Village Police Benevolent Association appreciates the support shown to our officers by this initiative by providing the necessary resources to address the serious challenges many officers face as a result of their job,” said Village PBA President Ken Brabant. “Everyone deals with stress in different ways and seeking help shouldn’t be stressful.”

— BHY

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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