Proactive Protocols Inform Southampton Town Police COVID-19 Response, Chief Says

Court officers and sergeant prepare for a virtual arraignment.

In contradiction to the social media outcry, official complaints regarding the violation of the New York PAUSE executive order are fairly minimal according to Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki. In a little over a month, from March 23 to April 30, officers logged 386 cases associated with the governor’s executive order.

Out of those cases, the chief said, there were 174 proactive visits made to retail establishments. “We saw there were some in need of guidance,” he said. “They didn’t understand what their obligations are.”

That was especially true when the orders changed as weeks wore on, he said.

The chief developed what he called “a valuable program.’’ The department asked local businesses to post a placard that informed visitors that it was an essential business operating in compliance with the executive order and working with the Southampton Town Police Department.

Retailers like it, the chief said, because it gives customers a sense of security while at the same time asking them to play their role in stopping the spread of the infection.

Of 184 calls related to stores, just 10 were complaints. Police also responded to 60 complaints about construction and landscaping operations in violation of the executive order, 41 calls about social distancing violations and one that fell into the “other” category.

The first response to any complaint is education, with an emphasis on public safety for police and any member of the public they interact with, the chief explained.

“We’ve been very, very proactive,” the chief said, reporting that his was the first department he’s aware of to mandate surgical face masks for dispatchers.

Describing that section of the Hampton Bays headquarters as “a hub of activity,” Mr. Skrynecki explained that shifts of dispatchers work the same consoles, phones and microphones.

“Very early on I mandated surgical masks to protect them,” he said.

He said he changed the dynamics of the section, which was generally a gathering spot. “It became off limits,” he said.

Next, the chief escalated the protocol to require masks for anyone in the building, unless he or she was in an office alone. In any common area, everyone needs a mask, he said.

On the street, the chief required officers to don N95 masks if they were in contact with anyone suspected of harboring the virus, then, he said, “It became N95 masks any time you breached the 6-foot social distance rule.”

The chief developed a strategy for “no contact” vehicle stops that allow officers to give tickets without touching any drivers or their documents. With the window rolled down just enough, the officer and driver may speak, as the officer asks the driver to hold their driver’s license up to the window. Using a cellphone, the officer would take a photo of the license and use the photo to do a computer check. The ticket is then slipped through the window.

“We put a lot of thought into how we do what we do,” Mr. Skrynecki said. “We never touch you, and you never touch us.”

The department has recorded the arrest of a COVID-19 positive individual. To undertake processing and an electronic arraignment, officers “suited up in Tyvek,” the chief reported.

The safety protocols underscore what the chief called “a pretty good number.” With just under 140 employees, there were to date just two confirmed cases in the department, with one case contracted on the job and neither patient in contact with other members of the department.

“I’ve very pleased with the senior staff here,” the chief said. In the days when the pandemic was just evolving, he said, “we looked at protocol changes and how we needed to re-tool.” And now, he said, “we’re operating very smoothly in a very different manner.”
For example, the chief and senior staff recently conducted an interview for a staff position — everyone sat 6 feet apart, everyone wore a mask.

“There’s a different feel and a different look … but we’re not curtailing anything, we’re getting it done,” he said.

As the crisis wears on, employers and leaders have spoken about operational alterations that may be carried forward even after the PAUSE orders expire. Asked if there are procedural changes his department instituted that he’d like to see continue, the chief said there were “tons.”

“We’re finding on our end that electronic arraignments provide a tremendous advantage over the old way of doing them,” he said.

Pre-coronavirus, an arraignment meant taking an officer off patrol to bring a defendant to court. Now, he said, court officers can come to headquarters and remove a defendant from the cell and put him or her on camera. Following a virtual arraignment process, a defendant may be released straight from headquarters.

“No officers are taken out of the field, “ he said. “That’s something to look into in the future.”

The chief also extolled frequent Zoom meetings with counterparts in other towns that the crisis has precipitated. Suffolk County chiefs traditionally met in person to exchange ideas. The virtual meetings allow for more frequent interaction without the disruption and time of driving to an oftentimes up-island meeting place.

“I’ve come to realize the benefit of these types of virtual meetings,” Mr. Skrynecki said. “Even if we are not in a pandemic situation, there could be merit to continuing to meet like this. That protocol is working.

“The retail inspection initiative was an adaptation to what we do,” he continued, listing the benefits of some changes. “It seems to be working very well and I like the community outreach. It’s increased through this [pandemic].”

“In a crisis like this, there’s a lot of trial and error,” he continued. Managing it “is all problem solving,” the chief explained. “You need to identify the big problem and the emergent problem. You consider your response, then monitor and create a backup plan just in case. And, as soon as you have one problem handled, there’s another one in front of you.”

Speaking of how the department has risen to the occasion, the chief noted, “the entire Town of Southampton has been functioning very well. We did not close government, we modified government.”

And the community has noticed.

“We’ve been thanked repeatedly,” the chief informed. Local school children have sent posters, and food establishments have sent meals.

“We’ve been the recipient of some very thoughtful people who took the time to acknowledge we are on the front lines and our people are not able to work from home,” he said.