By Alec Giufurta
When thousands of protesters against police violence and systemic racism took to the streets of the East End’s hamlets and villages in early June, organizers decided to work with local police departments in setting up the marches — in what may have been a stark contrast to those confronting departments in some of the nation’s cities.
And while there have not been any high profile cases of police brutality on the East End, that did not leave area departments immune from a growing national demand to defund the police — reallocating or redirecting funding away from police departments to other government agencies funded by a local municipality.
Lisa Votino, 40, organized two protests, one in Bridgehampton on June 2, and the other in Hampton Bays on June 14. Both closed sections of Montauk Highway. She coordinated with the Southampton Town Police to host the events, she said in a phone call with The Press.
Initially, police were worried about how the June 2 march, the first major demonstration on the East End, would turn out, especially in light of protests across the country that had turned violent and were marked by looting and rioting.
“They had so much anxiety,” Ms. Votino said.
In the days preceding the protest in Bridgehampton, some protests in New York City turned violent. She said this gave the Southampton Town Police an impetus to take a more hands-on role in planning the Bridgehampton march.
Ms. Votino said that the nature of the Bridgehampton march — nonviolent, yet powerful — absolved some of the police’s concerns heading into the June 14 march. There, police were notably less visible, although they still closed the main thoroughfare in Hampton Bays.
“I think they felt more comfortable in Hampton Bays,” Ms. Votino said. Still, she noted, “In the planning, they had been really involved.”
Southampton Town Police Chief Steven E. Skrynecki agreed to many of Ms. Votino’s requests for both the Bridgehampton and Southampton protests, he said in a phone interview.
“We collaborated, I told Lisa that I’d work with her as a partner,” he said.
By coordinating beforehand, local organizers and department leaders alike explained that they did so to protect everyone’s safety.
This included, at the Bridgehampton march, an “on the fly” coordinated decision between Ms. Votino and Chief Skrynecki to close both lanes of Montauk Highway, The chief said the unexpected size of the demonstration demanded a two-lane closure to hold all the protesters.
Ms. Votino also noted that the road closure was not in the original plan. “We basically agreed that we would take cues from each other,” she said.
Chief Skyrnecki reflected on the nationwide momentum for racial justice in his decision to collaborate with Ms. Votino.
“People are emotionally charged and are looking to express that. I feel that it’s best that I work with someone to make that happen in a peaceful and organized manner,” he said.
A June 5 rally turned-march in Sag Harbor likewise saw police working with protesters to close Main Street. Organizer Brooke Canavan, 19, a 2019 graduate of Pierson High School and the founder of East End Against Hate, a youth anti-racism coalition, told The Press she initially was reluctant to work with police.
Ms. Canavan noted how the action may even seem conflicting: working with Sag Harbor Village Police while calling for the defunding of police departments nationwide. She acknowledged, however, that without the department’s assistance, the protest would have been more difficult to keep safe.
“I’m lucky to have this privilege … to ask for roads to be shut down,” Ms. Canavan said.
Ms. Votino did not feel as though the message of the protesters would be negatively affected by working with police.
“At the end of the day, the police, as they stand right now, have an obligation to protect the public,” she said.
“We’re happy to make it happen,” Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire said, citing his desire to protect the 1st Amendment rights of the protesters to peacefully assemble.
On Juneteenth in Southampton Village, Long Island’s United Youth coordinated a march beforehand with Southampton Village Police Detective Sergeant Herman Lamison. During the event, police escorted the marchers in parade-style through the village, with rolling road closures.
When protesters unexpectedly charged County Road 39, officers scrambled to stop traffic and protect the protesters, many of whom knelt in crosswalks.
Mr. Lamison said his priority was the “safety for protesters exercising their 1st Amendment rights,” noting that the department saw its role as “facilitating and assisting.”
Det. Sgt. Lamison, Chief McGuire and Chief Skrynecki all disagree with calls to defund the police, but said they were in favor of finding better ways to meet the public’s needs.
Chief McGuire said he is in favor of allocating additional funds to areas significantly lacking resources, including mental health and substance abuse services.
“We are called on to do many things, from the normal police issues to helping people who are mentally ill … I would think it would be better to maybe train us a little better,” he said.
One of the key tenets of the push to defund departments is to move funds from law enforcement services to social services to reduce structural violence.
Det. Sgt. Lamison said that he believes that calls to defund police agencies were misguided.
“I wouldn’t say defunding police would be the right messaging,” Det. Sgt. Lamison said.
Instead, he suggested that a more appropriate approach would be to call for reallocating funding to social services.
Ms. Votino explained her desire to defund, not abolish, police departments, criticizing the budgets of the Southampton Village and Sag Harbor police departments.
“They’re insanity … there’s not a lot of crime,” Ms. Votino said of the village police budgets in particular. “But I also don’t think the country is ready to scrap systems as they are to start from scratch.”
The Southampton Village 2020-2021 budget allocated more than $8 million to the department — nearly 25 percent of the village’s entire budget — an approximately 6-percent increase from the previous year. Det. Sgt. Lamison deferred questions on the budget to the mayor’s office.
The Sag Harbor Village Police Department’s more than $3 million budget for the 2020-2021 year, by comparison, represented around 28 percent of the village’s total budget.
“If you’re serving your community correctly, you have to listen to all sides of your community,” Chief Skyrnecki said. “I think that we are in a position on the East End … that we are in line with our community’s wishes.”