Updated: May 1, 2022
By Michael Wright
A town committee that has been exploring how the East Hampton Police Department is viewed by the community, and how the relationship can be improved, offered the Town Board a list of recommended steps ranging from annual community forums with police to the use of body cameras by officers and better bias training.
Committee members noted that some of the recommendations are already being implemented by the department, which had embarked on a community relations and sensitivity initiative of its own long before racial injustice protests of this past summer and the mandate from the state to take up the reform review, and that others may take many years to implement if they are possible at all.
The committee recommendations say that the EHTPD needs to boost diversity in its ranks to better reflect the makeup of the community it serves — expanding the number of Spanish-speaking officers and staff, in particular. Currently, just four of the department’s 65 officers are Latino and five speak Spanish, along with two other department staff. The department has just one Black officer, a detective, and nine women, only one of whom is in supervisory position.
The town should establish a permanent community review board with representatives from across the diverse demographic spectrum of East Hampton, the committee said, that can work with department brass and the Town Board year-round on issues of concern. The review board and the department should hold at least bi-annual public forums that will help both officers and community members better understand the needs and expectations of the other.
“The more information community members have about the operations of the police department, the more comfortable they are likely to be when interacting with police officers,” said Sandra Dunn, a member of the committee and the associate director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, a Latino advocacy group, told the Town Board on Tuesday.
The committee also recommended that the department purchase body cameras for all of its officers to wear while on duty. Both the committee and Police Chief Mike Sarlo acknowledged that the cameras provide protection to both the public and police officers against wrongful accusations, though the chief and Town Board members said that logistical and budgetary requirements of introducing body cameras can be a very heavy lift thanks to the shortened time frames for submitting evidence and information on criminal cases now mandated by state law. With just two weeks to compile and submit all evidence in a case, the town’s use of dashboard cameras on all its cars has already made meeting the deadlines difficult for department staff and that adding body cameras and the need to distill hours of footage for each call would require the addition of at least one new dedicated staff member, the chief said.
The committee also recommend that the department have mental health professionals on call to respond with officers to scenes involving mentally disturbed or developmentally disabled individuals. But Chief Sarlo said that doing so would not be feasible, either in terms of the availability of such experts or the needs to protect their safety on calls. He said that officers receive extensive and regularly updated training on dealing with those suffering from mental health issues.
“By the time you are 10 years into a police career, you practically have a psychology degree,” he said.
Among the recommendations the committee offered that the department has already begun implementing were a need for better racial sensitivity and bias training and a system for tracking the ethnicity of those who are pulled over, issued summonses or arrested by department officers, so that patterns of bias may be more easily identified.
Chief Sarlo said that the department has already been requiring officers to participate in hours of certified instruction on bias free policing each year.
“It’s recognizing implicit bias, it’s understanding how your experience as a police officer can shape your interactions and opinions of the people you come in contact with, understanding that and recognizing it and trying to work to be better at that in the performance of your duties to ensure that people are treated fairly and equitably,” Mr. Sarlo said.
“I think we have a lot of solid ideas and real tangible ways to go about improving some of these relations going forward,” the chief added. “It’s a very challenging time for all of us in law enforcement. We can’t lose sight of the fact that despite all of our goodwill and intentions and the fact that we do far more to support the people in our community than we do to arrest them or issue them summonses … it’s those negative contacts and those difficult situations where negative interactions paint a much broader brush.”