Updated: May 1, 2022
By Christopher Walsh
Upbeat report on police-community relations, but 'room for improvement'
"We need a more diverse police force," Sandra Dunn of East Hampton Town's Police Reform and Reinvention Committee told the town board on Tuesday. Just four of 65 officers are Latino, she said, and the department has just one African-American member, a detective. Nine officers are women. "To have a police force that more accurately reflects the community it represents and serves and protects is very important," Ms. Dunn said.
"The consensus of the entire committee is that everything the Police Department and town board does really needs to happen in Spanish," she said.
Members of the committee, with the town police chief, Michael Sarlo, briefed the board Tuesday on a draft plan for a mandated statewide reform. The upbeat presentation praised community relations while calling for improvement in some areas.
Last June, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed local governments to perform a comprehensive review of their police and develop a plan to improve them with an eye to the needs of their communities, to promote community engagement, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color. The directive acknowledged the death of George Floyd in Minnesota the month before, subsequent protests across the country in response to white police involvement in the deaths of Black people, and the "long and painful history in New York State of discrimination and mistreatment of black and African-American citizens" dating to the arrival of enslaved Africans in America.
The Town Police Department and the committee will hold a public comment session to review the draft plan Thursday night at 7, on LTV's YouTube channel.
"The consensus among committee members is that, in general, things are going well in terms of police-community relations," Ms. Dunn told the town board. "But there is always room for improvement."
The committee's recommendations, she said, fall into the dovetailing categories of community outreach and trust-building, transparency, accountability, community needs, training and use of local resources, recruitment and hiring, and police officer well-being. Several recommendations, Chief Sarlo said, are already being acted on, while others would require substantially more funding.
"Knowledge is power," said Ms. Dunn, who is the associate director of Organizacion Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, and "the more community members have about operations of the police department, the more comfortable they are likely to feel when interacting" with police. Information-sharing forums where police and community members could exchange thoughts on what an encounter with each other looks like would help build trust, she said.
Those who have not been the victim of a crime, or detained or arrested, "feel that police work is shrouded in mystery," Ms. Dunn said. Victims of crime often do not understand their rights or what follow-up they can expect, and details about police processes would help, she said.
A community review board, with semi-annual meetings with the chief to review policy, "is key to making sure that the community feels involved, connected to the police, and that these recommendations continue to be implemented," Ms. Dunn said. The committee also felt that police officers should wear body cameras. "We see this as a short-term goal" that must happen as soon as possible, she said, though the committee understands funding constraints. Chief Sarlo said he supported body cameras, but costs, including an additional employee to download data and maintain a database, would be considerable.
All materials, forums, and communications should be available in the top six languages spoken in a community, per existing state and Suffolk County executive orders, Ms. Dunn said. The committee "would like to see this on a local level as well, both from the town board and the police department. This is how you make community members feel they are a part of civic life and how they feel welcome in the community."
OLA has provided cellphones dedicated to the use of LanguageLine, a telephone interpretation service, which Ms. Dunn said allows more effective communication between officers and non-English-speaking members of the community.
Other recommendations, several already in practice, would be to continue local nonprofit organizations providing expertise to train and provide information to police. OLA and the Retreat, which helps victims of domestic violence, have given presentations to the police, she said. Mental health professionals would help police officers dealing with domestic violence or sexual assault calls. Training on unconscious bias and racial profiling would also improve police-community relations.
The committee recognized the stress and difficulty of policing, Ms. Dunn said, "and we do understand from the chief that there are some structures in place already to help officers dealing with mental health issues related to their jobs, and maybe even not related, in order to change the culture of police departments" where mental health issues might be stigmatized.
Chief Sarlo called the dialogue with the committee extremely productive. "We learned a lot from each other," he said. The procedure manual is being updated, community engagement and information-sharing initiatives are underway, and officers are undergoing bias training. "Additionally," said the chief, "we have areas of community outreach we can make that the committee was very receptive to," which would help the public understand a police officer's perspective when handling calls.
He acknowledged that "our audience is too small, we haven't been reaching enough people in the community." Finding ways to engage as many people as possible "is one of our big hurdles."
Following Thursday night's public comment session, the town board will re-examine the draft plan on Tuesday before a vote to adopt reform measures, which is scheduled for next Thursday.
East Hampton Village, meanwhile, will release its draft plan on Monday and the final plan on March 30. In Sag Harbor, police discussed the draft with the village board on Monday and released it to the public yesterday. It has been posted on the department's website and on Facebook, where comments and suggestions can be made before the final plan comes due, under the governor's executive order, on April 1.