Q&A: Southold police chief discusses COVID-19

The outbreak of COVID-19 has changed nearly all aspects of daily life — including how police departments function. An essential function of society, there are concerns about how to keep police officers safe without heightening the risk to public safety.

The Suffolk Times recently interviewed Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley to see how the pandemic has affected his department. His responses have been edited for space and clarity.

The Suffolk Times: What are some of the challenges presented amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?

Chief Martin Flatley: There’s a whole new set of challenges. We’re leaving behind the community oriented policing, which our department does like to have a relationship with the community. Social distancing makes it almost impossible, so we’ve cut a lot of personal interaction between police and members of the public. We’re doing over the phone rather than in-person interviews and modified our lobby at headquarters, so if something has to be documented [there], an officer meets them outside in the parking lot.

We’re also trying to keep up with all of the mandates from the state and county and adapt them to our department.

ST: Have any aspects of patrols/policing changed?

MF: Patrolling is definitely different. We’re not getting the volume of calls we normally get. For aided cases, if someone’s sick, we’re having to basically proceed as if they are positive for the virus. Calls like that, you’re leery going in — we’ve had an increase in aided cases.

ST: One troubling statistic we’ve seen is an uptick in domestic violence calls. Suffolk police officials say there’s been a nearly 3.5% spike. Is that happening in Southold, too?

MF: Those calls are on the upswing. I’ve looked at [reports for March] but I think April will tell, when that comes in.

People are shuttered in their house with family members, or with other situations where there’s orders of protections in place. But we haven’t got to the point where the numbers are up dramatically. In March 2019, we had 12 domestics, this year we have 15.

ST: What about other types of crimes?

MF: I think crime itself for the most part is going to be down. Larcenies and burglaries might have gone up — that was our concern. We pushed out patrol and wanted them to have an extra presence in the commercial districts.

There are about 10 fewer [car accidents] in March this year, which is obviously attributed to fewer cars on the road.

Aided cases have remained constant. Overall, calls are down to 1,045 from 1,345 last March.

ST: Has there been an influx of calls related to nonessential businesses, like construction, still going on? Has anyone been issued a violation?

MF: We’ve received complaints about construction sites. It’s then up to the officer to interpret what’s an essential business, what’s not. The general consensus is trying to get voluntary compliance first by talking to people. We haven’t had to arrest anyone or give anybody a summons for violating the public health law. I’m hoping that will continue, but the longer this goes and if they don’t lighten up a little bit of the restrictions, I can see that getting more difficult to enforce.

ST: What about social distancing?

MF: There’s plenty of those calls to go around, especially the last couple of weekends when the weather’s been nice. A lot of it’s deceiving — we get complaints about two people walking together and not maintaining a six-foot distance. But if it’s family members, the exposure is already there.

These orders are meant for people to self administer and rely on people doing the right thing. In my opinion, most people we are dealing with and seeing are adhering to the different restrictions.

I went to do takeout in Southold at La Cascada, they were serving out of the window. It was myself and probably eight or 10 other guys there and everybody had a mask on, everybody was maintaining distance. I think everyone’s well aware of what they’re supposed to be doing.

ST: Have there been any reductions in officers or hours as a result of the health crisis?

MF: All dispatchers, police officers and marine units are considered essential, so we’re all working and we have been throughout the last six weeks. The only reduction for headquarters is our clerical staff we usually have in here.

ST: Have any officers tested positive? How’s your supply of personal protective equipment?

MF: We have not had any officers test positive for COVID-19, but we have had five officers go through 14-day quarantine periods. Currently we only have one officer quarantining, the others have returned at various intervals.

Since the very beginning of this pandemic and the North Fork’s first case,  we have had a protocol for officers responding to fever/cough calls which required them to wear N95 masks and gloves with goggles also being provided. Our supply has been scarce at times but never critical. Suffolk County has supplied us with N95 masks, disinfectant gel, gloves and glasses throughout and the federal government helped supply us with gowns, when none could be found. Greenport Harbor Brewery with W.J. Mills donated a  supply of their face shields, and the public on whole has also helped us by supplying us with hand-made cloth masks.

The local merchants have also been incredibly generous with their donations of food and drink, which is really appreciated as certain employees are stationed at headquarters for their whole eight-hour shift and cannot get out for meal breaks.

ST: What role will the department play as the local economy begins to reopen?

MF: Everybody’s kind of on the same page thinking of May 15 as a benchmark as to what’s going to change and how much freedom towns will get to bring some of their workforce back. Once this does start to pass, we don’t intend on being this impersonal. We enjoy interaction with the public and we want to be there when they need us. We’re looking forward to getting back to normal.

There are several local domestic violence resources for residents. Anyone in need of help related to domestic violence can call the Suffolk County hotline at 631-332-9234 or text 844-997-2121 24/7. Residents can also reach out to local domestic violence organization The Retreat by calling their hotline at 631-329-2200.