By Stephen J. Kotz
New Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki turned some heads earlier this summer when he announced he had formed an anti-terrorism unit, made up of about a dozen officers from the department, that would be assigned to high priority public events throughout the town.
The team, some of whose members carry military-grade M-4 rifles, made its first appearance at the Bridgehampton Half Marathon at the end of April and at a number of other major events throughout the summer, including activities at the Children’s Museum of the East End. The beefed up security detail was most recently assigned to the Hampton Classic horse show in Bridgehampton, which ended 10 days of competition on Sunday.
“The overwhelming response has been extremely positive,” the chief said on Tuesday. Nonetheless, he added, “I have received a small amount of criticism and we are modifying our initiative” to respond to those concerns. He would not provide specifics, but said, “It’s always our goal to provide public safety without interfering with the event or impacting the attendees.”
“It ended up going quite smoothly,” said Shanette Barth Cohen, the Classic’s executive director of last week’s horse show. She said town police had worked closely with the horse show’s staff and its private security firm to design a security plan.
“We were concerned the additional bag checks and that sort of thing would slow people down and impact their enjoyment of the show, but that wasn’t the case at all,” she added.
Ms. Cohen said there were officers with semiautomatic rifles teamed with officers with more traditional handguns as well as K-9 units, although she added the Classic has employed its own bomb-sniffing dogs in the past.
“I think many people found it comforting to see an additional police presence,” she said.
Chief Skrynecki was clearly stung by some of the criticism that has been leveled against his decision to launch the anti-terror unit by those who say it is too heavy-handed for the small town atmosphere of the East End.
The chief said he did not want to debate the merits of his decision, but this summer, he made it clear he believes the East End, where celebrities and members of the business elite vacation, would make a tempting target for terrorists of all stripes and said he was surprised this spring when he was still serving as a consultant to the town department, to learn it was not considering the possibility of a terror attack at the half marathon.
He cited recent attacks in France and England as well as recent domestic attacks — the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016 — as reason for caution.
By the same token, the chief, who said he wanted to project an image of security where necessary and one of comfort elsewhere, said he has instructed his officers to wear bulletproof vests under their uniform shirts, not over them, to present a less armored appearance to the citizens they serve on a daily basis.
While Southampton Town has established an anti-terror unit, East Hampton Town has not, nor does it deploy its Emergency Services Unit, which consists of town, East Hampton Village and Sag Harbor Village officers, for special events, said Chief Michael Sarlo in an email.
“We do evaluate the safety and security plans for special events, and look at response and prevention possibilities on a case-by-case basis,” Chief Sarlo added. “We monitor all intelligence and ensure our training addresses active shooter response, large scale events, schools and the like.”
Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin McGuire, who has a much smaller department at his disposal, said he would typically work with the New York State or Suffolk County Police to provide beefed up security on a case-by-case basis.
One such case occurred a year ago during a Black Lives Matter rally in the village. Chief McGuire said about 15 members of a state police SWAT team were stationed at the firehouse on Brick Kiln Road, not because he feared the protesters would cause trouble but because there had been police intelligence “chatter” that white supremacists might show up.
The chief added that police have to be more careful than they were a generation ago. When passengers get off Hampton Jitney buses, sometimes they will leave a suitcase or bag outside the Municipal Building and someone will call police. “It’s a new world,” he said.
Independent of their approach to special event security, both town chiefs said the recent decision of President Trump to reversing an Obama administration restriction on the distribution of surplus military equipment to police departments could come in handy.
“The use of military grade equipment by local police departments can be quite beneficial and is an example of the efficient use of government surplus to allow budget strapped municipalities the opportunity to obtain upgrades in equipment they may otherwise not be able to afford,” said Chief Sarlo. He added that East Hampton Town already has several Humvees, which are pressed into service during flooding and blizzards and that the emergency services unit has an armored vehicle at its disposal. He said other equipment, such as emergency lights and generators could also be well used by local departments.
Chief Skrynecki said his department would be interested in obtaining surplus high-axle vehicles that would provide better hurricane preparedness. “They can carry 15 to 20 people and handle 3 or 4 feet of water,” he said. “They would also come in handy in snowstorms when there are high drifts.”
The chief said he would take the same approach in seeking surplus equipment to use in weather emergencies as he did when he established the anti-terrorism unit. “We’re seeing some interesting dynamics in the weather,” he said. “You have to be aware of the conditions around the country and around the world.”