Southold Town’s police advisory committee highlights staffing concerns

Southold’s Police Advisory Committee highlighted concerns about staffing “that require further analysis and review” at the town police department in a report presented to the Town Board on Tuesday. 

The department had 52 staff members at the end of 2019, but committee member James Abbott pointed out at Tuesday’s work session that manpower numbers “float almost weekly or monthly.” His colleague John Slattery explained that authorized strength doesn’t necessarily equal the number of “feet on the street” — staff might be out for training or on disability, or have retirements pending. 

“For decades the [Southold Town Police Department] has operated with a fluctuating staffing level that in recent years has become more challenging and difficult for maintaining effective police coverage of the 53-square-mile town,” the report notes. It also acknowledges that “actual staffing … [has] been sufficient to cover the level of incidents being reported” over the past few years. 

The report, “a manpower evaluation and assessment,” was conducted as the town continues efforts to have the department accredited by New York state, although Supervisor Scott Russell said the analysis needed to be done anyway.

“I think the police advisory committee is trying to say, ‘Look, we’re a town, we’ve evolved quite a bit, what number of police officers do we need?’ ” he said. “They did a lot of work but one thing they did that was equally important was they showed us where we needed to study more.”

Other concerns outlined in the report include the lack of a uniformed officer on duty in police headquarters at all hours, the lack of an officer assigned to taking reports and handling walk-ins at the department and the minimum number of required field officers on duty dropping from five to four on weekdays and during the “off-season,” even though more people are visiting and living on the North Fork throughout the year.  

“While minimum staffing of [four] officers per shift may have worked 25 years ago, this is no longer the case,” the report says. “When staffing drops to [four], the East Sector must extend coverage for nine additional miles, from the Village of Greenport to Orient Point. If the Greenport sector car gets tied up with an arrest … or other call that requires time, the next closest car is the Southold sector unit which covers a significantly enlarged area from Peconic to Greenport/Orient.” 

Committee member Michael Regan added at Tuesday’s work session that the North Fork has “changed dramatically” over the years. 

“Love Lane wasn’t Love Lane, Greenport wasn’t like what it is now, there were no breweries, the vineyards were not what they are today,” he said. Although the police force “is an extraordinarily professional group,” it seems they need more resources.  

“There are particular assignments that are lacking in care, and the department doesn’t have the manpower to do things which we believe involves public safety,” he added. The report, using statistics gathered between 2000 and 2019, points out that call volume has increased over the past two decades. Last year was omitted from the report as an outlier because of the pandemic. Calls to the Southold police department increased from 20,538 in 2000 to 25,507 in 2005. Almost 22,000 calls were made in 2019. 

“With responsibility for such a significant area of coverage, even minor change in staffing (a member reports in sick or is injured and unable to work) results in difficult choices and, unfortunately, impacts coverage across the township,” the report says. 

Mr. Slattery noted that it’s also important to take the complexity of these incidents into account. 

“The deceiving thing about incidents that I learned is that there are … very complex incidents and very straightforward incidents,” he said. “The complexity of incidents over 19 years has increased. Maybe we’re dealing with a light number of incidents, or a growing number of incidents, but they’re more complex.” 

He’s not sure how to “get our arms around” that, although he acknowledged that the police force has more technology than it did 19 years ago, such as GPS and computers in their vehicles. 

The report recommends bolstering the town’s community response unit, an office tasked with juvenile cases and arrests, as well as school outreach. The unit could “directly address problem areas in the Town,” such as by patrolling Greenport Village on bike or foot during the summer, and at popular events like the annual Strawberry and Maritime festivals. 

The report also points out there is no longer an officer dedicated to Long Island’s East End Drug Task Force and emphasizes the importance of reestablishing a presence with the group. 

“That is a very, very, very valuable tool. We should be in that. Information is knowledge and knowledge is power,” Mr. Abbott said. “Besides the tangential benefit of participating with the surrounding towns, we get information that can lead the council and chief to develop programs for those future problems.” 

Mr. Abbott also claimed the police headquarters are “insecure.” 

“When I went there to take a tour of headquarters, the chief was gracious in everything we asked for, but he had a piece of wood to hold the two doors,” he said. “It can be remediated with some technology and some new doors and stuff like that.” 

The report concludes with an emphasis on the professionalism and effectiveness of the current police staff but notes that “to maintain and enhance the current levels of public safety and service offered to all those who live, work and visit our communities — and to ensure the health and safety of our officers — it is necessary to address these specific concerns.” 

Committee members further emphasized at the town work session that Southold is “a safe town.” 

“We are so much better than the East End towns on the other side of Long Island,” Mr. Regan said. 

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