East Hampton Town last week kicked off its state-mandated assessment of the role local police departments play in the community and how well they are trusted by various sectors of the population.
In the first public discussion of the process, town officials said that they are confident the local departments are already well ahead of the curve in terms of how well they are trusted, respected and relied upon by the diverse demographics of the South Fork’s populace.
East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said that he and other chiefs are proud of the local “law enforcement culture” that embraces community engagement and a focus on quality of life for all residents. Because of this, he said, his department and those of the adjacent villages it works with, welcome the state assessment process that will solicit the input and advice of residents from all walks.
“As one of the first departments on Long Island to be accredited [by New York State] in 1990, the East Hampton Town Police Department has had a long standing reputation as a leader in progressive policy making, training and community engagement,” Chief Sarlo told members of the Town Board on Thursday evening in special board meeting, held via Zoom video conferencing. “We have a proud history of community policing efforts, fair and equitable enforcement of the law, while listening to the citizens we serve, understanding their concerns, focusing on their public safety needs and proactively communicating with key stakeholders.”
The chief nodded to the department’s DARE program, the dedication of a school resource officer, programs that work with seniors on preventing cyber crime and home safety, opioid abuse awareness programs, its work with the town’s Adolescent Mental Health and Substance Abuse Task Force and its regular meetings with community groups like the ACLU, OLA of Eastern Long Island and the Group for Good Government.
“To say that we are actively engaged with our community, would be an understatement,” and something that is memorialized with numerous thank you notes from residents,” the chief said.
In the wake of the killing of an unarmed man by Minneapolis police officers and the calls for action to root out and address chronic institutional racism in police departments, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo ordered all of the state’s 500 law enforcement agencies to undertake an extensive collaborative analysis and reform process with members of the communities they each serve.
“Maintaining public safety is imperative; it is one of the essential roles of government,” the governor’s action plan says. “In order to achieve that goal, there must be mutual trust and respect between police and the community they serve. The success and safety of our society depends on restoring and strengthening mutual trust. With crime growing in many cities, we must seize this moment of crisis and turn it into an opportunity for transformation.”
The mandate requires that each municipality engage various sectors of their communities in the process and develop a detailed set of recommendations to present for public review and comment before being adopted as official legislated policy by the end of March 2021.
In East Hampton, the main thrust of the process began this week with the first solicitation of public input, but town officials said that many of the foundational recommendations called for by the state, especially with regard to community relationships, are old hat in East Hampton.
“Many of the police reform handbook recommendations are already being practiced in East Hampton and have been for some time,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said. “We’ve had a very robust community engagement with the Community Policing Program here. But there’s always room for improvement.”
Chief Sarlo concurred. The national spotlight on issues of race relations, the use of deadly force and social justice has weighed on all departments and cast every conflict with suspects or problematic individuals in a particular light.
“Despite our efforts, as local police agencies, we recognize not every interaction goes well and during conflicts or arrests there are concerns and questions regarding policing and ultimately the actions of our officers,” said Mr. Sarlo, who has been chief of the town department since 2013. “Policing remains a very difficult, challenging and dangerous profession.
“We embrace this process,” he added, noting that town officers average about 25,000 calls for service per year, but only five incidents that result in the use of force and just two complaints from community members.
While Thursday’s meeting was intended to be the first opportunity for the public to offer its views of how local police departments could improve, just one resident called in: to heap praise upon the work the Town Police have done.
Richard Whalen, a local attorney, recalled interactions he had with the police when his late wife was wrestling with severe mental health issues, and how Town Police officers handled a fraught situation.
“We all know about the issues nationally with police departments and racial issues … but one of the other main issues — and we’ve all seen it on television — is dealing with people who have mental disturbances and they don’t always handle it very well,” Mr. Whalen said.
“You need officers who have empathy, who are patient, they need training. I’d just like to be able to say that I’m proud of our police department.”
The town has offered that any members of the public who wish to offer comments or have questions about the assessment and analysis of local policing may send an email to PoliceReformComments@ehamptonny.gov and they will be entered into the process record.
The town is also going to be helping form community groups from various corners of the town to participate in the workshopping of policy guidance and reform.
“This is really just the beginning of our engagement with the public,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.