By Minerva Perez
Four hours a night, once a week for 12 weeks. No, I was not binge watching bad TV. I was taking part in a reinstated Southampton Town program that connects civilians to the inner sanctum of police work.
From Riverside to Sagaponack and from Eastport to Sag Harbor, many people do not realize the breadth of the area covered by Southampton Town police. Active police personnel total just under 100 people, which is not a lot considering the distance between sectors and the needs of a not so sleepy little resort town. After my 12 weeks were up, I was thankful for the time spent and the relationships formed with law enforcement and my peers. This did manage to feel like family as promised by the new Chief of police, Steven Skrynecki, at his welcoming address to the class.
Our class was made up of about 20 folks of all different ages and backgrounds. The academy ran from February through May.
During our classroom time, we covered topics related to: use of force, gang intelligence, drug identification, drug task force, DWI roadside checks, domestic violence, and human trafficking. In the field, we shot actual guns with simunition rounds (plastic rounds), toured helicopters, emergency response vehicles, watched K9 units in action, did role playing exercises with fellow students as partners, experienced EVOC training as passengers in fast moving and expertly controlled police cars, viewed disturbing yet effective video training on distracted driving, and were asked to make split second gut wrenching decisions on how to respond to deadly force via an interactive screen with several different scenarios requiring that you shoot your weapon or risk either being shot or letting some innocent bystander or hostage be shot.
At the end of this training, we were then asked to schedule eight hours of ride along time with police officers in their vehicles. I chose 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on a Thursday and 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. on a Saturday.
Some of the impetus for me to take part in this civilian police academy came from my work with OLA of Eastern Long Island. I was graciously allowed to connect other Latinos to this academy to gain a deeper understanding of law enforcement while also allowing law enforcement to experience Latinos not in crises, but Latinos with genuine interest and concern for the safety of law enforcement.
Over the course of the 12 weeks, under the skillful and enthusiastic direction of Lieutenant Sue Ralph, we engaged in frank conversations about use of force, fear of police, safety of officers, active shooter scenarios, communication, asset forfeiture and other challenging but necessary community conversations.
The class was made up of a range of backgrounds including mental health professionals, EMS worker, court officer, retired teacher, active teacher, construction worker, and more. I was often surprised at certain perspectives but welcomed the ability to debate with respect and thoughtfulness.
I was most impressed with the effort made by many of the trainers (all law enforcement with 15-plus years of experience) to illicit our opinions on these difficult topics. The intention was not to defend or shoot down any sentiment that was not immediately pro police. I viewed it as an honest curiosity about the opinions we all came to the table with. Many an evening, we found ourselves still in discussions well after 10 p.m.
Given the variables of life on the East End, I will never seek to reduce any of this experience to one blanket statement or another. Some of the work I do, requires me to continue to question policies and practices of this police force. I would be remiss if I did not.
During the training, I found myself not fully satisfied with certain protocols and yet blown away by the care, patience and skill members of the force exhibited while out on ride-alongs with them.
The answer, I’ve learned and continue to learn, is in the conversation. The only way to make statements about what law enforcement can do or should do or actually does is to be in an active conversation that allows as much information in as commentary out. The “two ears and one mouth” adage applies nicely here: Talk less and listen more. We will always be entitled to our opinions, but being mindful of how our statements effect the lives of officers and residents alike, is a crucial lesson I came away with.
I am now a member of the Southampton Town’s Civilian Police Academy Alumni. I am looking to support the great work being done in the Explorers program as well as the Shop with a Cop initiative. I will remain in this conversation, for better or worse, as long as I am able. I feel I am among family. Not the family of a 1950’s Campbell’s Soup can, but the real dysfunctional kind that knows as long as we have communication, care and respect for each other, we will overcome some of the toughest obstacles.