EXPRESS SESSIONS: Police Officials, Activists Agree That Change Is Needed

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While racially charged encounters between minority members of the community and police officers on the South Fork once may have been commonplace, according to a Black activist participating in an Express Sessions forum on July 9, they have dramatically decreased over the years.

But racial profiling, he said, is still a persistent issue and needs to be addressed.

“I respect everything you guys do, and when something happens, you guys come and you fix it, and most of you guys do your job with such bravery and pride, and it is awesome,” said activist Willie Jenkins, co-administrator of Black Lives Matter of the East End, addressing several police chiefs participating in the forum.

“But, like I said, growing up, I’ve experienced it many, many times, just unfair treatment … I’m not going to say it’s fully racist, but it’s just like profiling is so real, and it’s ridiculously blatant, it’s discouraging, and it just makes you numb to it.”

Complaints of police misconduct are taken seriously, the East End police chiefs attending the forum stressed, and every department on the South Fork has made strides to change policies over the years to address systemic biases that may have existed among the rank-and-file officers at one time. But they admitted that more probably needs to be done.

“We’re striving as much as we can to be always be a better police department,” said Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki. “There’s a lot of talk about police reform right now. But the fact of the matter is, you have good police departments. Progressive police departments are constantly reforming. They’re always looking to be better, and there’s always ways to be better. Nobody ever reaches the max in any industry.”

The Express Sessions event, “Protect and Serve: How Community Policing May, And Must, Evolve,” was the latest in series of virtual panelist discussions held by the Express News Group. Held via the Zoom video conferencing platform, the event was offered live on Thursday morning, July 9.

In addition to Mr. Jenkins and Chief Skrynecki, panelists included Westhampton Beach Village Police Chief Trevor Gonce, Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire, OLA of Eastern Long Island Executive Director Minerva Perez, East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. It was hosted by Express News Group Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.

The forum was held in the wake of national protests about police violence and systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd in May in Minneapolis, and subsequent calls for police reform nationwide. The discussion was meant to explore how the national conversation was reflected locally, and ask the question of whether changes needed to be made on the South Fork.

All of the police chiefs agreed that, both locally and nationwide, change needs to happen.
While many stopped short of supporting efforts to “defund the police” — a movement that calls for re-appropriating a portion of police department budgets to public safety and community service agencies — they acknowledged ongoing efforts to update policies in their departments to ensure that everyone was treated fairly.

Chief Skrynecki offered an analogy that whenever his officers interact with the public, whether a traffic stop or a response to a medical emergency, “every one of those encounters causes either a deposit, or withdrawal, from the bank of community trust.” The goal, he said, is more deposits, fewer withdrawals.

Chief McGuire noted that in the four and a half years he has been chief, he has already instituted a five-year plan to update the department’s policies and procedures.

Sag Harbor Police Chief Austin J. McGuire

“We constantly review our policies and procedures,” he said, “and this isn’t just something that I started, this is not something that once it’s done, it’s over. … It’s something that I’m very proud of doing. It was a long time coming, I can tell you that.”

Chief Skrynecki, who took over the town department two years ago, noted that one of his first orders of business after being appointed was to meet with all the various community and civic groups throughout the town in order to gauge concerns from the community and respond to them.

Likewise, Ms. Perez, who was hired by the Latino advocacy group OLA in 2016, said that one of her first initiatives was to meet with representatives of the 10 police departments that serve the East End to foster open communication between the departments and the Latino population.

“I think I’ve gotten a chance to work with everyone that’s on this Zoom call in very specific ways, and I’m happy for that experience,” she said.

While she noted that she has always been received in a positive manner, and that real initiatives — like Southampton Town Police patrol units now being equipped with cellphones that can be used to deploy translators — more action needs to be taken.

OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez

“It’s not about the individual bad apples,” she said, “it’s about the systems that allow bad apples to do bad things. It’s important that we recognize that, and we recognize this is about all of us with the great experiences that we have, the desire that we have to serve our communities, all of us, and what we bring to the table for that. That does require open conversation and dialogue, and then along with that dialogue, it requires actions to be set on a timetable to actually do the actions. The dialog alone is not enough.”

The officers on the panel were all quick to denounce the death of Mr. Floyd but hoped that not all police officers or departments would have to pay the price for it.

Westhampton Chief Of Police Trevor Gonce

“I do agree with the tactic of kneeling on somebody’s neck for eight minutes does not sit right with me, or any of the other chiefs, or any other law enforcement officers I’ve spoken to,” Chief Gonce said firmly. “What took place in Minneapolis was a disgrace, and it tarnishes the badge nationwide.”

Asked by Mr. Shaw if he agreed with assertions that racism was common with local departments, and that is was systemic, Chief Sarlo said he didn’t believe that was true.

East Hampton Police Chief Michael Sarlo

“I just don’t see evidence of that systemically here in the Town of East Hampton that would cause me any greater concern than then the already focus and attention we place on a priority of ensuring that we treat the community and the public fairly here in the town of East Hampton,” he said, noting that in his experience as an administrator for the past 10 years, he’s had no instances of confirmed cases of bias in the department.

Ms. Perez disagreed.

“I want to speak to that. You asked a question, Joe. Is this relevant out here? Of course it’s relevant out here.

“The bar that we have is not ‘knees on throats,’ okay? That’s not the bar. The fact that Willie and I are not speaking about the worst of the worst of the worst does not mean that the conversation around how we’re dealing with people of color, and the relationship between law enforcement and people of color — of course it’s a valid conversation.

“… Implicit bias is real. The difference between all of us and law enforcement … is they’re the ones that carry the guns,” she added.

Willie Jenkins, co-administrator of Black Lives Matter of the East End

Both Mr. Jenkins and Ms. Perez also pointed out that members of the minority communities may be reluctant to report perceived incidents of bias or profiling by police officers, feeling either intimidated by the officers or resigned that it might not make a difference.

“The reason you might not be getting these reports is … when we tell you something, you don’t listen,” Mr. Jenkins said. “You say we’re making it up, or that doesn’t happen. When the police say it’s not happening, it’s not happening — and this is what you’re failing to realize.”

Chief Gonce said he found it troubling that people would be reluctant to come forward.
“That is something that struck me, and we really need to figure that out. How do we fix that?” he asked. “How do we fix that problem? We need to work on that, and I’m open to solutions for that.”

Chief Sarlo, for his part, encouraged people to report any misconduct. Reports will be taken seriously, and acted upon, he said.

“We’re listening, we’re engaged,” he said. “We have made tremendous strides in these areas over the years, and … maybe some issues may be underreported. Maybe there’s a way to create greater accountability in these …

“We want that accountability. We want that transparency in our operations. I’d rather have 20 unfounded complaints that I reviewed thoroughly, and met with the officer, and looked at the dash camera video, and brought the public in, then have two go unreported. We really want to encourage that engagement by it by the community.”

Chief Skrynecki added that the departments “should be doing a better job” when looking at prospective new hires “and their history in terms of implicit bias.”

“Talk to their neighbors, talk to their employers,” he said. “What kind of individual is this? How do they view other people, and how do they relate with a variety of other people is very important. That does take place. It’s part of the investigative process. But … I think that could and probably should be looked at a little deeper.”

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.

Mr. Thiele compared the current climate of the country regarding efforts to enact police reform to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I think we may be at a similar watershed moment with regard to race relations in 2020. We are in the midst of a pandemic, we are in the midst of incredible economic disruption, we are dealing with civil unrest,” he said.

“But in all of that is an opportunity, I think for all of us, and it’s an opportunity for all of us to do better, to learn, to listen. I think listening is the most important thing. Certainly, those of us that are elected officials need to do is listen, not act as if we have all the answers and let us tell you what we’re going to do. We need to listen.”

He noted that Governor Andrew Cuomo had issued an executive order calling for all police agencies in the state to conduct an assessment on any reform measures that may need to be taken.

“I think that’s the opportunity that we have, is to do better and to be at a time, I think when there’s more polarization out there, not just in the political realm, but in society, we need to turn that around,” he said. “We need to bring people together. That’s the challenge, that’s the opportunity, and law enforcement and the role of law enforcement plays a role in that larger picture.”

Moderator Joseph P. Shaw

The discussion ended on a positive note, as Mr. Jenkins, a Bridgehampton native, recounted a story in which two Southampton Town Police officers pulled into the parking lot at Bridgehampton Day last year, an annual celebration of community members. Some people in attendance became nervous, he said, wondering if the police were there to shut the event down or were responding to noise complaints.

Instead, the officers were supportive and encouraging of the event, and even participated in some of the fun, he said.

“They got food, and they played with the kids,” he said. “That, right there, everybody, it completely changed how everybody felt. Everybody’s mood got uplifted. I saw little kids running around, ‘I want to be a cop.’

“That typically didn’t happen back in the day,” he added, “and that happening right there, that just uplifted me so much, and it made me feel so good. We just ask for things like that — be involved in the community.”

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