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Nappa: Police reform committee needs a reboot

The Southold Community Outreach Implementation Working Group needs a reboot.

At Tuesday’s work session, Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said attendance has declined at meetings as frustration over “spinning wheels” has risen. The group needs new members, fresh perspectives and concrete direction.

“Even though there are supposed to be a lot of people on this group, it’s very one-sided,” Ms. Nappa said. She suggested the Town Board may want to advertise for committee members and noted the attendance of a professor from the Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare has been “crucial” to the functioning of the implementation group. The professor, Carolyn Peabody, previously led the town Police Reform Task Force. 

The Police Reform Task Force was established following orders from the governor in 2020 to reform local police departments and justice systems. The Southold committee established a 264-page document with recommendations for police reform and evolved into an implementation group in 2021. Ms. Peabody is concurrently running the steering committee to reform the justice system. 

“I feel like [the group is] heavy on police representation and very light on any other perspective. I think that in order to have these conversations, we need more than just that one side, we need some people that are coming up with new ideas,” Ms. Nappa said. “We were hesitant to have people from the community be part of this group because we felt like there was specific expertise that was needed, but there is a real lack in, as I’m saying, other perspectives … Not a lot of conversations are happening.” 

Ms. Nappa said a few police officers have stopped coming to meetings, even though their perspectives had been important in identifying priorities in the beginning.

“I think that they saw that sort of wall of, you now, we’re not getting anywhere, and they became disenfranchised to come to this group that sort of became the same old thing that they probably deal with in their jobs, where they ask for something and it just kind of falls on deaf ears,” she said. “Whose job then is it to implement these ideas or to take these things to fruition? Because no one’s doing it, right. The chief’s just staying with doing what he’s doing. The ideas are kind of just out there.”

Councilwoman Louisa Evans suggested the lack of a clear chair or secretary for the committee is also a problem.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell pointed out that there has also been focus on reforming the justice system via a separate task force. The Southold Justice Review and Reform Task Force has moved on to stage two of its mission, and is examining the local justice system post arrest. Stage one focused on policing in Southold.  

“I do think one of the issues is that a lot of people that would be involved have been focused on another issue, which is justice review reform,” he said. “I do think that’s wrapping up soon.”

He added that police have been “very cooperative and committed to making changes, they’re just not in the position to have the authority to make those,” and pointed out that ultimately, officers are the ones who need to implement recommendations from the group. 

“I personally think maybe we should reevaluate not just the membership, but what’s the focus of the group right now? I think it should be taking a policy at a time,” he said. In June, the department presented a new police handbook with nearly double the number of policies, developed by consulting company Lexipol.

Councilman Greg Doroski suggested the Town Board, as police commissioners, should review and approve the policy manual — a sentiment echoed by Councilman Brian Mealy. 

“That was certainly a fear as a member of the review and reform committee,” Mr. Mealy said. “As a former member of that group, the hope was that it would continue in some iteration, whether it was more engagement from the community, or as Greg [Doroski] said, our responsibility [as commissioners]. I just don’t want it to just be on the shelf … and there’s no follow through.”

Ms. Nappa said Ms. Peabody had suggested volunteers from the reform task force could help read through the policies as well, to make sure the committee’s recommendations have been included. She also said the manual should be released to the public. 

The IT department, under the supervisor’s direction, has been tasked with posting police policies on the town website. The anti-bias task force will appoint a new member to the committee, and Ms. Nappa plans to ask Capt. James Ginas, the acting chief of the department, to appoint an implementation officer to help roll out changes. 

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