New Southold Town police handbook has nearly double the number of policies to follow

More than a year after hiring a consultant to update its protocols, the Southold police department has a new handbook that outlines nearly twice as many policies. 

“We started with 83 policies in this book. We now have 153,” said Lt. Scott Latham at last Tuesday’s Town Board work session. The policies developed by consulting company Lexipol cover more topics and can be updated more quickly, compared to the previous handbook, he said. The digitalized manual is also available on the go, ensures completion of regular training and provides a “giant leap towards accreditation,” Lt. Latham noted. 

The Town of Southold hired Lexipol last winter to provide policy updates and training for the town police department. Lexipol currently serves more than 2 million public safety and government professionals, but has been criticized by advocacy groups for pushing against use-of-force reforms and recommending policies that have been described as “over-permissive or vague.”

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley pitched the program to the Town Board in September 2020, to relieve pressure on the small department to keep up with mandated policy updates from the federal and state governments, and assist the department as it works towards accreditation.

Former governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order earlier that summer requiring state police agencies to modernize policies with community input. Lexipol has been a popular option with New York law enforcement, and is also used by the Suffolk County, Riverhead and Shelter Island police departments.

The program will speed up the department’s ability to update policy, according to Lt. Latham. Previously, changes required a lengthy review process that could stall the enforcement of new policies for six months to two years.

“With Lexipol, what’s unique about them is they have lawyers and staffers that are continually monitoring changes in law and instead of [going through that process], part of what we pay for is that monitoring of law changes and they will push out updates,” Lt. Latham said.

Some policies, such as use of force, are universal but others may be tailored to individual departments, he noted. “There was a lot of work that we did to add to the policy Lexipol originally lacked,” he said. 

The Southold department did not accept all Lexipol policies, because some — such as those geared for university campuses — do not apply to the town. 

Because Lexipol is web-based, officers must mark that they understand the policy at the bottom of each page, creating a record that each employee has read the guidelines, Lt. Latham added.

Updated policies are sent out to everyone on the force, he said, with a pop-up when officers sign into Lexipol. Each month, every employee is responsible for completing 15 training bulletins — “short, scenario-based quizzes based on selected sections” of the policy manual, according to a presentation from the work session. The department retains editorial control.

The Town Board emphasized the value of making the new policy handbook available to the public. Supervisor Scott Russell said he thinks “a lot of people feel excluded from this process,” in particular members of the town’s Community Joint Justice Review and Reform Task Force, which he said has “a right to review the policies.” 

“I don’t think it’s their intent to get involved and start redrafting things. They just want to read it and have an understanding of what’s been included in terms of the policies they feel strongly about because you did work with them on creating the justice review documents,” Mr. Russell said. “They just want a sense of assuredness that this reflects what their intents were.” 

Chief Flatley said the policy handbook is “certainly there to be reviewed by anyone in the public.” Lt. Latham distributed copies of the new policies to Town Board members. The handbook is not currently available online, although it’s available at police headquarters, according to Mr. Flatley.

When a reporter asked to see a copy, the chief said its release has not yet been approved and would be discussed with the Town Board next week. Individual sections, however, may be viewed at police headquarters.

At the work session, Town Board member Greg Doroski suggested finding a way to release the handbook digitally, an idea several other members echoed. 

“I do feel like it would serve the public in terms of transparency if they were able to view it,” Town Board member Brian Mealy said. 

“Frankly I think the public would be pleased that there are policies on so many things, that there are rules of conduct and ways to do things. They may be surprised about how many policies there are,” added Town Board member Louisa Evans. 

Town Board member Jill Doherty said she has some questions for the town attorney first that she’d like to discuss in executive session. Chief Flatley said he’d also like to talk with the town further.

Lt. Latham emphasized that the handbook provides the department with “a foundation of professionalism and accountability, which is what we all want.”