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Task force of community members, elected officials, law enforcement to review justice system

Town officials in Southold are taking steps to form a task force that will address inequities in policing and the justice system.

Members of the North Fork Unity Action Committee and Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force appealed to the Town Board at a virtual work session meeting Tuesday asking the town to partner with them on the initiative.

“There’s lots of actions and movements across the country — actually across the world — that are calling attention to a lack of equity in our society in particular relation to the justice system,” said Carolyn Peabody of Orient, a co-chair of the North Fork Unity Action Committee. “We felt as a committee that it was absolutely timely and important to raise the issue.”

Earlier this month, Ms. Peabody and Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate co-authored a letter asking the town to establish an independent assessment of the town’s justice system and more civilian oversight.

Over 90 residents signed the letter, which was sent to the Town Board as Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring municipalities to take similar action.

In the wake of widespread civil unrest, the executive order directs all local government entities that have police agencies to conduct comprehensive reviews of current police policies and procedures and develop an action plan.

Police departments and municipalities must consult stakeholders, including community members, district attorneys and other officials to create and implement a plan by April 1, 2021. The plans must address use of force by police officers, crowd management, community policing, bias awareness training, de-escalation practices, restorative justice practices and community-based outreach, and must include a transparent citizen complaint procedure to handle issues raised by the community.

The order also authorizes the state budget to withhold state funding from agencies that do not comply.

Sister Margaret said the council is seeking to collaborate with the town on the initiative. “We come as people looking to be partners with you in order to be able to make Southold be a shining example of a town that’s willing to take a look at itself” in order to grow and be better, she said.

The task force would unite community members and local activists with elected officials and members of law enforcement to review each component of the town’s justice system from policing to court proceedings.

According to a proposal written by the North Fork Unity Action Committee, the task force would include six community members representing marginalized populations, six community leaders and two Town Board members.

From there, Ms. Peabody suggested the members could split into focus groups to discuss policing, jailing, the justice court and communication with the district attorney’s office. They would be tasked with research, gathering public input and experiences and providing feedback. 

Valerie Shelby, who co-chairs the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, said urgent action is needed. 

“We live in two different communities,” Ms. Shelby said, adding that she fears for her adult sons because of how they may be perceived by police. “They’re grown men, but I worry about them like they’re 5 or 6 years old. Yes, we need the police but we have to improve how they treat people of color and African Americans. They need more training so there can be public trust and safety for everybody, not just a select few.”

Supervisor Scott Russell said that despite efforts made by the town to provide cultural literacy training and “synergy” events to bring police together with the community, more can be done.

“The issue first and foremost is the idea of gaining community confidence, particularly among people of color. We need to start developing some community relationships,” he said, adding that the town must also consider input from law enforcement and prosecutorial partners to address systemic inequities.

Councilman Jim Dinizio cited these issues as a reason he’s been pushing for police department accreditation for several years. “If you look at your rules and procedures on a regular basis, you become a better department,” he said, adding that it’s time for town officials to “step up to the plate” and provide more regular review.

At the supervisor’s suggestion, the task force may include Spanish-speaking community members. Board member Louisa Evans also urged the group to engage young people in the process. “They’re really our hope,” she said.

The board plans to adopt a formal resolution establishing the task force in the coming weeks.