Editorial: The justice task force takes a solid first step

The Southold Justice Review & Reform Task Fork has officially begun its work and is asking the public to get involved in the process of assessing how well the criminal justice system has worked in Southold Town.

There are many elements that fall under the purview of the criminal justice system, so this is no small task. The task force will look at how policing and the town justice process have functioned and identify any problems and issues that should be addressed. 

Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring local governments to engage with community members and assess the need to adopt policing reform plans.

That order was issued against the backdrop of nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., at the hands of police. Some of these protests, including those in New York City, erupted into violence and widespread property destruction.

Marches in Riverhead and Southold were peaceful. A Black Lives Matter rally last month that ended on Fifth Street in Greenport included caustic comments aimed at police departments. 

A group of Southold officers, including Chief Martin Flatley, stood by at a distance during the rally and heard the comments, including some that characterized police officers as murderers. None of them could be blamed for thinking these comments were over the top, unfair and insulting to career officers who are, in this small town, our neighbors.

The highly charged atmosphere around the Southold police department is, perhaps, one of the reasons it is facing a number of key retirements. Citing a shortage in manpower and anticipated turnover in the upper ranks of his department, Chief Flatley has requested a $1 million increase in town police spending for 2021.

The budget request includes nearly $1 million to pay retiring officers for unused sick and vacation time. The chief wrote that the 48-member department, which is already down two sergeants and saw three officers retire this year, is anticipating that a detective sergeant, two lieutenants and possibly its captain will also retire in 2021.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say the rhetoric about policing in America has convinced some of these officers to leave their professions. If that is true, that’s a loss for Southold Town.

At its Monday Zoom meeting, task force members asked the public to make their voices heard, whether positive or negative. The Rev. Natalie Wimberly, vice chair of the task force’s steering committee, said she welcomed outside opinions so that “we can help our police department to be the best that it can possibly be so that they can continue to serve and protect you.” 

Caroline Peabody, who helped organize the task force along with others, including Sister Margaret Smyth, said this: “I think it’s a tremendous testament to the inherent goodness of the people of Southold Town that our town leaders and the police have stepped forward to say that we want to make sure that every member of every community in our town is treated fairly with true justice and equity.”

That is the right sentiment for Southold.

As a side note, it is fair to ask whether some of the rhetoric around the protests, and demands to “defund the police,” worked against Democratic candidates in the recent election. That contest brought millions more voters to the polls, who turned out the incumbent president but, so far, anyway, have picked Republicans on down-ballot lines and even given the GOP a boost in the House of Representatives.

In politics, as in life, words have consequences.