A task force convened to assess the criminal justice system in Southold Town has submitted its findings and recommendations to the Town Board.
The 279-page report is the culmination of over six months of collaboration among Southold residents, attorneys, law enforcement and other stakeholders that began in a year that shined a light on injustices embedded throughout society.
“The report represents an enormous amount of hours and incredible commitment” by task force members, said Carolyn Peabody of Orient, who chaired the Justice Review & Reform Task Force. “Everyone has come to this because they really want to make sure that our police department and the town’s dedication to ensuring public safety applies to everyone in the town in a way that’s equitable,” Ms. Peabody said.
The task force report presents five foundational recommendations that aim to build community trust and ensure equitable treatment by the police; support the police department through adequate funding and staffing; and ensure the optimal physical and mental health and morale of its officers.
Ms. Peabody described the foundational recommendations as those that must be in place before other aspects of the plan can be adopted.
Each category includes more specific recommendations, including an emphasis on officer mental health, additional training on de-escalation techniques as well as cultural diversity and bias, a campaign to recruit more diverse candidates to take the police exam and improvements to the civilian complaint process.
It also calls for translating policing policies, web pages and forms into Spanish and ensuring that patrol officers are equipped with a language line — a phone service that translates — to ensure interactions with Spanish-speaking individuals are respectful.
To increase transparency and community relationships, the report also recommends implementing a body camera program, adopting the tenets of procedural justice that include voice, transparency, fairness and impartiality and strengthening relationships between school administrations, students and school resource officers.
The plan also recommends the department continue working toward accreditation and calls on the Town Board to fully vet policies developed for the department by Lexipol, a firm recently hired to oversee policy updates and police training.
Under their proposal, a new community-police partnership committee would be formed to review the progress in implementing plan recommendations, continue surveying community members and officers and hold regular meetings to maintain an “ongoing, trust-building dialogue.” The committee would be made up of 11 members, including seven diverse community members, two representatives from the police and two members of the Town Board, one of whom would be the town supervisor
Before Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing municipalities to adopt police reforms by April 1, members of the North Fork Unity Action Committee and Southold Anti-Bias Task Force called on Southold Town to engage in an “independent, proactive and comprehensive assessment” of the town’s police department and justice system.
Their urgent call to action came in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last spring, a time when nationwide outrage about police brutality and racial injustice reached a flashpoint.
Southold’s task force began holding regular virtual meetings in September and conducted four public listening sessions, a police listening session and two sessions with high school students in Greenport and Mattituck.
It also facilitated a community survey on policing as well as an anonymous survey of town police officers.
Data collected from community surveys and other demographic information was used to support the goals outlined in the report, including a police survey that found 27 of 30 officers surveyed indicated a desire for more training and support. Of the department’s 48 police officers, 42 are white men, two are Black and one is Hispanic. There are six female officers, according to the task force report.
Ms. Peabody said Tuesday that hearing directly from community members and police officers was crucial.
In addition to the need for training, officers also reported feeling dissatisfied and challenged by the current 24/7 rotating shifts. The task force recommended the town establish a working group of police rank and file leadership to explore solutions, as well as adequately fund and staff the department, which could mean hiring seasonal officers to give full-time officers more time for training.
“The interesting irony is that around the country, there are municipalities where people are calling for the defunding of the police,” Ms. Peabody said. “We are calling for the funding of police.”
Adequate funding, she said, would in turn increase morale and officers’ sense of preparedness, as well as the feeling of support from the community.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Tuesday that the group should be commended for its work. “It provides a good foundation to have a public discussion,” he said. “We will now gather input from the police, other law enforcement officials, legal counsel, people from the justice field and, certainly, the public. Once we gather all of the input, we will make any revisions necessary prior to final adoption.”
The task force is expected to meet at 6 p.m. Friday to formally present the plan to the Town Board via Zoom.
To join the Zoom meeting, participants can dial in at 1-646-558-8656 or enter the Meeting ID: 939 9284 2459 and Passcode: 844427. The plan is available on the town’s website.
The town is facing an April 1 deadline to adopt and file the plan with the state Office of Budget.