A recently completed plan that seeks to build stronger community relationships and provide more training to police officers in Southold was mostly applauded by community members during the first of two listening sessions held virtually Wednesday.
“I’m impressed with the effort that’s been made in this small town to address big issues,” said Diana Gordon during Wednesday’s meeting.
Other residents echoed that feeling, describing the plan as both “reasonable” and “rational” while offering improvements they’d like to see adopted by the Town Board.
Many speakers agreed that community involvement was an important aspect of the plan, which was released by the Southold Justice Review & Reform Task Force earlier this month.
Daisy Rymer of Southold said she’d like to see it demonstrated that the police department has read and supports the plan. “They work for our community, not the other way around,” Ms. Rymer said. “I’d like to see a way to have faith that these practices will be followed through to the fullest extent and not mocked.”
Several people also spoke in support of establishing a Community-Police Partnership Committee that, according to the plan, would conduct ongoing reviews and community meetings in an effort to maintain “ongoing, trust-building dialogue,” and check in on the status of implementing recommendations in the adopted plan.
In a letter to the Town Board after the plan was released, police Chief Martin Flatley disputed the need for such an entity, arguing that an additional layer of oversight for the department is “unwarranted” since the Town Board also serves as police commissioners.
Local attorney Stephen Kiely, who also served on the task force, said the CPPC could serve as an open line of communication and collaboration between the department and residents.
“This is one of the most important subject areas to have a committee — and we have one for trees,” he said.
Some residents questioned whether the Town Board should double as the board of police commissioners. “It seems there are enough conflicts that could come up,” said Helen Finnigan of Southold.
Christopher North of Greenport agreed and called for additional reforms to the process of filing a complaint.
“Being the police commissioners and investigating a complaint is not going to work with trust of the community,” Mr. North said. “There needs to be some type of outside counsel or involvement of the community.”
Body cameras have also emerged as a common thread in similar reports drafted across the East End as a way to increase police transparency and accountability.
Ms. Finnigan said she was disappointed to learn that Chief Flatley did not favor body cameras, citing the additional costs associated with them.
“Body cameras are an important part of the entire set of recommendations,” she said. “I think that’s supported by a lot in the community.”
While the report doesn’t expressly recommend implementing body cameras, it does urge the department to begin evaluating the merits of the technology.
Former Town Justice Brian Hughes argued that the report is specifically meant to address issues within Southold rather than take on the larger national questions that have surfaced in the wake of George Floyd’s death and similar high profile cases.
Mr. Hughes pointed to the community survey conducted as part of the report, in which over 90% of respondents reported that they believed the Southold Police Department is “honest and ethical” in interactions with the community. About 72% of respondents reported having a “positive” or “very positive” interaction with police in the last five years, while approximately 10% of those surveyed reported having a negative or very negative encounter.
But the survey received just 422 responses, reflective of just 0.019% of town residents and the majority of respondents were between ages 60-69. Several task force members also testified that during one-on-one interviews with people of color and undocumented North Fork residents, many expressed hesitation at filling out the survey, even anonymously.
“It’s naive of us to say that because none of the surveys returned had any negativity that it doesn’t exist,” said Councilwoman Sarah Nappa.
Some of those interviews were conducted by Rev. Natalie Wimberly of Greenport’s Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. She said what happens on the national level does have local impact and noted that in her interviews, she learned that police interaction with marginalized communities has not been as favorable as the survey results might suggest.
“Our community is a cross section of wonderful people who want their voices heard,” she said. “They want to be recognized and acknowledged that we matter.”
Board member Louisa Evans said what ultimately ends up in the reform plan is better than having nothing on the books.
“We should be thinking about it as not putting out fires, but preventing fires from happening,” she said. “Things may be OK now, but you don’t know what the future will hold.”
A second listening session is planned for Wednesday, March 24.
It will be held at 7 p.m. via Zoom and login information can be found on the town website.
The town, and municipalities across New York State, are facing an April 1 deadline to adopt the plan, per an executive order issued last summer by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.