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At virtual Synergy meeting, police chief says department welcomes review, but officers feel ‘underappreciated’

A virtual meeting involving the Southold Town Police Department and the community was wrapping up last Wednesday night when two final questions, related to the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force and the newly created Southold Justice Review & Reform Task Force, were asked of Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley.

“I think that when these groups are organized, there tends to be a message out there that this is an attack on police, when we simply want communication and transparency and work together for the community,” the questioner asked. “I want to know, what are you communicating to the officers, and how do they feel about this? I mean, do they feel like these organizations, these groups, are against them or can we communicate to them that this is more about coming together and, you know, working together and that transparency is not an attack on the officers?”

Mr. Flatley’s response: “My opinion on this is that I don’t take it as an attack on the police department. The police department works for the community, it works for the public. We protect and serve. If the community has feedback and they want to see changes made or they want to see if they have input on what we do, then I welcome it … In the same sense, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that a lot of the officers feel a little underappreciated in these times because they’re the subject of a lot of criticism, a lot more criticism than they’ve ever been used to in their career, but I still don’t think they look at it as an attack, just a little maybe underappreciated.”

That’s the sort of open conversation that was shared in the latest of a series of so-called Synergy meetings, inspired by the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force. This was the 10th meeting of its kind, although the first conducted via Zoom.

Two days earlier, the Southold Justice Review & Reform Task Force held a virtual press conference to talk about its work, the result of an executive order signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, mandating local governments to engage with community residents and assess the need for and adopt policing reform plans. That task force has listening sessions scheduled for Dec. 3, 5 and 22.

Participants in the 65-minute Synergy meeting gained a sense of what the Southold police faces in a manpower shortage. The moderator, Prof. James Banks, said it was his understanding that the Southold Police Department was understaffed by four officers and would be down by five by the end of 2020.

Mr. Flatley said candidates are queued up and ready to be hired, but “Suffolk County is going through some very tough financial times” because of a lack of federal bailout money and has made it known it will not run a police academy before the end of the year. “We’re in a tough spot right now,” he said. “We’ve never had this happen before where Suffolk has advised us that they weren’t putting through an academy class … You know, in today’s climate there’s a lot of people retiring from our profession, and they need to be backfilled one way or another, and we can’t afford to have a year without an academy really right now.”

The manpower issue arose again when Mr. Banks, the Southampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force chairman, noted mentoring and ride-along programs that the Southampton Police Department offers young people interested in a career in criminal justice.

As for Southold taking on similar programs, Mr. Flatley pointed to the numbers problem. “We simply just don’t have extra manpower right now,” he said. Another issue, he noted regarding ride-alongs, was insurance companies leery of the potential for injuries.

Mr. Banks offered an idea for collaboration among the East End police departments. “Maybe that’s something we should talk about as a group at some point,” he said. “If they have the manpower to do it between their several villages, then why not share the wealth?”

Mr. Flatley said he anticipates changes following an independent review of the police department’s rules and procedures. Changes must be reported to the state by April 1, in compliance with Mr. Cuomo’s executive order.

Margaret Cowden, a member of the Southold Justice Review & Reform Task Force, said the task force is in the process of conducting a community survey and interviews with the police force. She said implicit bias training is to be part of the task force’s work.

Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force co-chair Sonia Spar spoke of the importance of that task force’s upcoming hearings. “There is no reform until we get information, we collect data, and the only way we can collect data is by having these conversations with the community,” she said. “Every voice matters.”

A voice of encouragement was heard from Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force co-chair Valerie Shelby. She commended Mr. Flatley “because he’s always willing to work with us and he could send a subordinate, but he comes himself. He comes to our meetings. He’s always ready to answer any and all questions, no matter how hard they are, so I just want to thank him for making himself available. Because if you have a good leadership, you’ll have good people under you, so we want to thank you for your leadership.”