In the wake of riots that erupted in Ferguson, Mo. this week after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot and killed a black teenager, Michael Brown, local police chiefs offered their take on the case — and longstanding racial tensions nationwide between police departments and minority communities.
Peaceful protests were also being held at cities across the U.S., though none in this area.
“We’re pretty far removed from [the Ferguson case] here,” said Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley, “But it’s also very much in the front of your mind, realizing that it could happen in any jurisdiction.”
“Any area can have a confrontation like that — that turns deadly — and that area could be put under the microscope by the rest of the country,” he continued. “I’m sure Ferguson, Missouri never thought it would happen there either.
“You become very aware of what the possibilities are in doing policing.”
Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller questioned the point of the rioting and looting that erupted in Ferguson in reaction to the news that Darren Wilson, the officer, wouldn’t be charged with murder or manslaughter.
“I think its ridiculous what’s going on right now,” he said. “Yes, everyone is upset. Everyone understands that. But this is solving absolutely nothing. Twenty-three people [in the grand jury] saw the evidence. You have to put your faith in them that they did the right thing; and I’m sure they did.”
Chief Hegermiller said he believes no Riverhead police officer has ever shot anyone throughout the history of the department.
“I’m sure the same could probably be said for the other East End departments as well,” he said.
Though this case brought to light a racial divide between the black population in Ferguson and the city’s police force, both local chiefs said they hope there is no similar rift felt the community’s they serve. The North Fork’s two town police forces are overwhelmingly white. (See a special report from 2012.)
“I like to think, or I hope, that here in New York we are ahead of this curve,” Chief Hegermiller said. “I hope there is trust in the Riverhead Police Department. I think the majority of the community out there does, and that’s a good thing.”
He noted, though, that such tensions had been felt in the past.
Chief Flatley said he could recall an incident working a rookie officer in the 70s, when he was called to break up a fight between a large group of white men in Greenport village who had gotten into an argument with a group of black men.
“They were in the street shouting and yelling at each other and it turned into a whole community event,” he said. “The times have just changed drastically and since then the demographics have also changed. A lot’s changed since then.”
On the possibility of local protests, Chief Flatley said just that he hoped any such events would be conducted peacefully.
“Everyone has the right to protest and for their public opinion to be heard, the only thing that we were ever expect from the public and hope from the public is that it would be peaceful and nothing would be damaged, and it would be done to get their point across and not in a negative way,” he said.