Southold Town Police Department data shows that documented criminal incidents dropped from 2012 to 2013.
But police officials said that the number of reported incidents may have declined slightly year over year in part because of an understaffed department that has fewer cops on the road, leading to fewer enforcement-related incidents like drunk driving stops and arrests.
Although the department is authorized to employ up to 52 officers, it currently has only 44, since a number of retirements have occurred and those positions have not been filled.
The Town Board has been in contract negotiations with the local police union for two years. No new officers have been hired in that time period. Supervisor Scott Russell said the board will look to hire five more officers once the contract negotiations are completed. The negotiations are now in arbitration.
“We’re down to the lowest levels we’ve been for a while,” Police Chief Martin Flatley said.
According to a police department report provided to The Suffolk Times, slightly fewer burglaries occurred in 2013 than the year before, down to 93 from 100. Petit larcenies dropped significantly, down by nearly 100 incidents to 187 in 2013 — the lowest reported level in more than 10 years.
Driving while intoxicated arrests and drug-related charges dropped slightly: 102 DWI arrests were made in 2013, down from 117, and 54 drug-related incidents were reported, a drop of three from 2012.
Chief Flatley said that while drunken driving arrests were down, he has noticed that more people are being arrested for drugged driving. In previous years, about 5 percent of DWI arrests were drug-related, he said. That percentage has ballooned to as much as 25 percent in recent years.
The drug of choice has also shifted away from crack cocaine to heroin, which has becomes more widely and cheaply available. Departments officers trained to make DWI stops have been trained to identify those driving under the influence of drugs, Chief Flatley said.
“If you pulled somebody over and there’s no smell of booze, but the person’s driving is horrendous and you think that they’re definitely under the influence of something, there’s a whole set of field sobriety tests you can do,” he said.
Eight robberies were committed in 2013, three more than in 2012, marking an eight-year high. Chief Flatley said that because few robberies occur in Southold Town each year, just a handful of individuals on a spree could inflate the numbers.
Last year, the Gamestop video game store in Mattituck and a gas station were robbed at gunpoint in separate incidents; police made arrests in both cases, the chief said.
The department report shows that disturbances and domestic incident calls were on the decline last year, dropping to 1,063 and 334, respectively, from 1,213 and 373, in 2012. Fewer arrests were made in 2013 as well, down to 405 from 434 the year before, according to the report.
Chief Flatley said he believes the department’s smaller size played a role in the apparent drop in arrests: with fewer cops walking the beat, fewer arrests could be made.
Chief Flatley said the department’s community response squad, for instance, was reduced to a single officer when other cops were transferred to different squads to fill vacant positions due to the hiring freeze. He noted that the department has been unable to pursue hiring more diverse candidates. The department has a clerk who speaks Spanish and uses a translation line for interrogations and taking statements.
Currently, the force also has three officers who are fluent in Spanish, though none is a native Spanish speaker.
Still, Chief Flatley said, having those officers on the force has already paid dividends, especially in the Hispanic areas of Greenport Village.
“Overall, the Latino population is not as forthcoming about reporting incidents as other people in town,” he said.
Having officers who speak Spanish makes it easier to investigate reported incidents and builds trust with the Hispanic community, which may encourage more victims of crimes or those with information for police to come forward.
“Just making initial contact with a Spanish-speaking person puts them at ease,” he said.
Chief Flatley said the department is actively reaching out to students at North Fork schools by hosting job shadowing events, and hopes to attract younger and more diverse candidates for the force in the future.
Though no new officers have been hired in recent years, the department has been using new technology to improve its planning and response to incidents. The chief’s office now features a smartboard connected to a widescreen TV; 2013 was the first full year the smartboard was in use, he said.
The smartboard allows police officials to overlay maps with instructions for officers. When Peconic teenager Ashley Murray went missing last year, for example, the department used maps to determine where officers should focus their search efforts. The department has used also the board to plan for parades and other events.
Chief Flatley said that the board can also be used for training. He pulled up a video from one of the department’s patrol cars showing a traffic stop and explained that officers can learn from their mistakes, as many athletes do, by reviewing the footage.
Still, Chief Flatley said, the department’s squads are stretched fairly thin, especially because Southold Town has become more of a year-round tourist destination in recent years.
About eight part-time officers are hired each summer to bolster the squad during the town’s busiest months. Chief Flatley said having a fully staffed department would only enhance enforcement efforts.
“The wineries are eating up the fall time right into winter and so many people are in second homes now,” he said. “Last summer was dramatic in how busy it was … Each summer’s been getting busier and busier.”