Only two Southampton Town residents had something to say during a “listening session” hosted by the town-appointed Community Law Enforcement Review Committee last Thursday night, January 21.
The committee will host another session on February 2. The group, which is composed of community members, clergy, advocates, police and Town Board representatives, has been meeting since it was formed by Southampton Town Board resolution last fall.
Its work is an effort to comply with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order issued in the wake of the death of George Floyd last spring at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The governor called for the “reinvention and reimagining” of police departments across the state. Holding community outreach is part of the internal analysis project which will result in the crafting of a plan for submission to Albany by April. Failure to do so could cost a police department its state aid.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman opened the teleconference, assuring virtual visitors, “People felt afraid of the police sometimes, that they would be targeted …We put together a committee and we started our work of reaching out to the community and making sure we understood the practices of our police department.”
The group reviewed the department’s use of force policies, as well as other practices, in an effort to ferret out any bias. “We want to get any information you can give us,” he said. “This is a judgment free zone, there’s nothing you can say that’s wrong.”
One woman who did speak on January 21, Mary Alyce Rogers of Westhampton, told the story of a traumatic interaction of Southampton Town Police that left Police Chief Steven Skrynecki feeling, he said, “very disturbed.”
In August 2019, Ms. Rogers’s 15-year-old son was home getting ready to go surfing with a friend, when there was a knock on the door. Personnel from the Southampton Town Police Department were there and “from zero to 10, they were at 10,” Ms. Rogers said. They began shouting at him, telling the barefooted, shirtless youth he was being arrested. The friend’s mother was there, and, said Ms. Rogers, although she was scared, she stepped between the police and the boy, refusing to let them take him … and they wanted to take him without even saying why. “It was immediate, ‘We are arresting him, he’s coming with us,’” the local mom recalled.
Later in the day, at headquarters with both parents, the teen was subjected to an interview “like a bad Law & Order episode,” with staff yelling in his face, telling him he’s guilty, before the accused even knows what he’s supposedly done. Eventually, Ms. Rogers learned a neighbor they have never met lent his car to a friend and it was vandalized while the friend had it. The neighbor filed an insurance claim and named Ms. Rogers’s son as the culprit. Despite a raft of evidence in support of the boy’s innocence, some in defiance of logic, investigators still accused and abused the teenager, she said. They said they couldn’t talk to him until they read him his rights. “I said okay, they read him his rights and stood up and said he’s under arrest,” Ms. Rogers related. They hauled the boy to another section of the building, not allowing his parents to follow.
Expressing gratitude for CLERC and the listening forum, Ms. Rogers said her entire family was traumatized from the incident — they had to pay a lawyer $1,000, “it took months to figure out” and despite filing Freedom of Information requests, still don’t know what the neighbor said that prompted the extreme police response.
Ms. Rogers informed the group that she has two biracial children and that the boy harangued by police looks white, while his sibling looks Black and identifies as Black. “This was my white kid, what if it was my Black kid?” she asked.
Ms. Rogers said she is afraid to walk her dog, afraid to even let her son out of her sight; she doesn’t see Southampton Town Police as an agency she’d ever call for help. “Something went very, very wrong here,” she said.
She expressed gratitude for the group, admitting, “I would never walk into Southampton Town Police department and tell them my story because I don’t trust them.”
“Thank you for having this panel … I want to use this experience and to make it better for the next generation,” she said.
“We will take everything to heart, you gave us a lot to think about,” Mr. Schneiderman said.
The forum’s second speaker, Vince Taldone of the Flanders, Riverside, Northampton Community Association, has been involved in the association for years and said in almost 20 years, he never heard a complaint about mistreatment at the hands of the Southampton Town Police.
Rather, he said, people in his community complain of neglect. They feel “the crime that goes on is because we are mostly a minority community … it’s a general feeling.” Either it’s classiest or racist, he said, but community members feel drug dealing on their street wouldn’t be allowed to occur in other, more upscale, sections of the town. “It’s a difficult issue,” he said, “If people don’t believe they’re going to get help, why bother calling?”
After 30 minutes, there were no more community members asking to speak with the committee.
“The limited number of speakers, we’re not reading anything into that,” the supervisor said. “We’re not going to make assumptions that everything is perfect, we know that it’s not perfect.”
Committee member Minerva Perez, the executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, said the town is working out the kinks of the police complaint process. “There are pieces of this we need to make more accessible and easier to access and more transparent and more equitable … We’re not there yet,” she said. The ongoing work needs to continue beyond the April deadline, she said.
The Reverend James Banks from the town’s anti bias task force and member of the CLERC committee agreed. Committee members don’t want the community outreach to be “a one and done kind of situation,” he said.
The police chief wants to continue hearing from the community so he can improve on the services the department provides, the reverend believes. As chairman of the Anti Bias Task Force, he said, “We are always open to hearing concerns and complaints.” The task force is in constant contact with police and the chief “to get those things addressed,” he said.
Taking the floor a second time, Ms. Rogers asked if there was someone to help her achieve closure with the ordeal. She’s reluctant to enter headquarters on her own.
“I am very disturbed and very moved by your story,” Chief Skrynecki said. “I can understand and appreciate your hesitation to come into the building. I would be very happy to speak with you on the phone.” If she needed someone else to be involved, he’s amenable to that, also, he said.
“I assure you I am interested in your story,” the chief continued. “Nobody should experience that. I will do everything I can to look into that more deeply and to correct that. That is not something that I endorse, that is not something that I would permit.” Chief Skrynecki asked Ms. Rogers to give him the opportunity to right the wrong.
At least five or six members of the committee offered to accompany her for the conversation.
What Ms. Rogers detailed is an example of what the committee has been mulling, committee member Lisa Votino said. Sometimes people need an advocate and don’t feel comfortable going directly to the police alone when they have a complaint. “It’s something we as a committee already identified as a need,” she said.
After an hour, with no new speakers coming to the fore, committee members decided to host a second listening session. It will be held on February 2 at 6 p.m. Visit the town website for further information on how to register.