Q&A: Former Police Chief Sees Need For Reform, Despite His Own Efforts Falling Short

William Wilson

A veteran chief of the Southampton Village Police Department, William Wilson was hired by Southampton Town in 2011 to take over its department, and he said he was given a clear mission by town officials: “We want to reform the department.”

Eighteen tumultuous months later, his tenure ended, as did his efforts at reformation.

“No, I failed miserably at that, and that was my fault, and I own it,” said Mr. Wilson, whose 28-year police career led to a current job in private security and as a consultant. He says of that career: “I loved every day of it, until the day I didn’t love it anymore.”

As Town Police chief, after five years as chief in Southampton Village, he regularly bumped heads with the Town Board — he blamed “partisan, political obstructionists” on his way out the door — and with members of his own department.

Today, Mr. Wilson, 56, splits his time between Florida and Eastport, and calls policing “an honorable, noble profession that needs change.” He’s something of a student of police reform, influenced in part by his own experience — and struggles — in Southampton, for which he says he deserves “a due portion of responsibility.”

But he also sees an opportunity for change, particularly after Governor Andrew Cuomo in June signed a repeal of Section 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Law, which had protected the personnel records — including disciplinary records — of police officers from public review.

He spoke recently via Zoom from his home in Eastport.

Q: When you came in as Southampton Town Police chief, you very clearly were looking to institute some reforms in the department — and, arguably, that’s what ended your time there as well. How does that experience inform your views of what’s happening today, with a call for sweeping police reforms nationwide?

I’ve been retired for eight years in November, which flew by, but I still keep involved. I was a practitioner in law enforcement for 28 years, went through the FBI Academy. I still keep contact with a lot of people who are currently police administrators from all over the country. That was really the value of that FBI Academy, the networking opportunities that presented itself.

Going back to even when I made chief in Southampton Village, which was in 2006, and then went over to the town in 2011, I always had an eye on reforming what I could on a small level, some of the criminal justice practices. I’ve become a student of police reform over the last 10 years because of my experiences when I did switch departments.

I would agree with you when you said that, arguably, that’s what ended my run. That’s what ended my run. I take full responsibility for my portion of that.

But trying to reform government, and specifically criminal justice agencies — that is a difficult, difficult task, and we’re seeing that right now nationwide.

Q: When you took over the Southampton Town Police Department in 2011, what kinds of reforms did you think were important?

Really, it was two different issues between the time I made chief in Southampton Village and Southampton Town — both of those departments presented some unique challenges.

If you remember 2005, 2006, we had [a Village Police] officer who was indicted for purchasing a firearm and giving it to her Hell’s Angels associate boyfriend. We had a sergeant who was being disciplined for myriad reasons. We had some other disciplinary issues that went on in a short period of time. Which, in a small agency, gets exacerbated.
One of the things that I found was: The system is set up for the protection of the

employee. And policing is a difficult job — I don’t think that anybody would disagree with that. But it is almost impossible to hold somebody accountable to the level of which they should be held accountable for their specific offense within the current system.

[Section] 50-a was a big part of that, and I think that you, as a journalist, would agree. Those records, I don’t believe, years ago were really meant to be sealed forever from any sunshine at all, from any governmental or public scrutiny. But that is what it developed into.

Q: How did that affect the process, having the records be sealed?

Even to be able to use the pre-existing records in the disciplinary process was withheld from me, as chief of police. Now …

Q: So — even you didn’t have access to them?

At the town, I didn’t. They moved them. …

I was, like, “What do you mean 50-a? I’m the chief of police. This doesn’t apply to me. How am I supposed to make any form of either positive or negative personnel decisions, not knowing the background of the officers involved?”

… These police departments are at a point now where it is viewed that the government and the public serve the police departments — and not the other way around. The police departments are good at protecting people. They’re very difficult in serving. What’s on the side of every police car? “Protect and serve.” It’s gotten worse. It has gotten worse.

… But the union’s a part of it, 50-a was part of it, the complications that are created through political involvement directly into the PDs is part of it. But being a chief of police — and I’m not crying crocodile tears: I was very fortunate and honored to be able to hold that position in two different agencies for seven years — is extremely difficult, in that you have to cater to the union. You have to sell whatever ideas that you have to try to reform the police department to the political structure, to towns, village boards, city government, wherever you’re working, and try to satisfy the needs of the general public. That is no easy task. No easy task.

Q: I’m curious what role the culture within the departments plays among the rank-and-file officers. How big of a challenge is that? We talk about the unions being a big part of this, but what about the culture among the officers who are on the street? Is that also part of what makes it difficult to reform?

I think so, yes. Again, two reasons pop into my mind. The first is, over the last 30 years, the police were crime fighters. They were your law enforcement mechanism. They responded to accidents. They provided assistance to the public.

Well, over the last 30 years, they’ve become schoolteachers, school resource officers. We even have the DARE program. Social workers. Because a lot of funds have been pumped into the police budgets, and maybe at the sacrifice, depending upon what jurisdiction you’re in, of other services, like mental health, like social work.

So you put all these different responsibilities, where really people call 911 for anything. It’s not just when they have a crime problem or a medical problem to get police and ambulance coming. Every domestic dispute. Every time somebody who has some mental health challenges is off their medication, the family can’t deal with them — police officers are responding to that.

Police officers are trained, and they go through training, but it’s not enough training. What do you do? You go to a mental health class once every 18 months to two years, for four or eight hours? That’s not enough to deal with the complexity of those issues, or the social issues, or what drives domestic violence.

So I think that we’re pumping money into the police budgets. The police are easy to dump tasks on, because they work 24/7. They’re always there. They’re just always there. I think that needs to be pulled back a little bit.

Again, there’s two different issues here, but they’ve become too multi-functional. The police exist to assist society in solving its problems. The police are not supposed to solve society’s problems for them.

Q: As a matter of fact, if the police try and solve a problem, the police use police tactics — which can turn into using force and confrontation. That creates more of a problem than it solves in some cases.

Yes, thank you. That segues into my second point. I should have said this at the beginning of our conversation.

I want to make it absolutely clear that what happened in Minneapolis to Mr. Floyd was criminal. It was indefensible and inexcusable. And it is a systemic problem — and I’m going to say it flat out: I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.

I started working in the mid 1980s or early 1980s. There is systemic racism throughout law enforcement — but there’s systemic racism throughout society, and that’s where police officers come from. I’m going to quote Commissioner Bratton: “They don’t pull police officers off Mars. They’re hired from the general populous.” There’s a cultural issue.
What happened in Minneapolis probably set public perception and relations with their police departments back 200 years. That was completely and utterly egregious, and there’s just no excuse for it.

But it happens, and it happens, unfortunately, frequently. That is an issue with too many police interactions with the public.

There are times where you don’t have to have a fully uniformed police officer answer your call. It depends what it is, but they become this Jack-of-all-trades. That’s not what they were supposed to be.

The police’s primary mission is law and order. They’re crime fighters. Then they respond to traffic accidents; you respond to medical emergencies until [an ambulance] can get there.
… You don’t do enough training to wear all these hats. You just don’t. There are systemic issues.

… But what’s happened now across the country feels like a movement. Even back then, with the Rodney King verdict, a couple of weeks went by, things started to simmer down, and you could feel it. You could feel it. This? This feels like a unique period of time. This feels like a movement.

Q: Your career started in the 1980s. If we had the ubiquity of cellphones in the 1980s and 1990s, would we have gotten to this point faster?

Unequivocally, 100 percent yes. It’s all about accountability.

… Police discipline does not have to be severe all the time, but what it has to be all the time is certain. You have to know you’re going to get this — and your average police officer, sergeant, any member of law enforcement, you don’t believe you’re going to get disciplined, because it’s difficult to discipline now.

… Nobody utilizes the probationary period. New York State Civil Service [law] gives you an 18-month probationary period to figure out whether you’re going to retain somebody for 20-plus years. Use it. After 18 months, you know. You know if you’re paying attention, your field training officers are paying attention. You know if this person is going to be successful or not.

… I’m not going to name names, but when you have an officer, during his first 18 months on the job, shows up to work four times without his badge and a gun — hmmm, you might want to rethink your career, because you’re not paying attention to the details and you’re going to get somebody hurt.

Q: Is that probationary period also pretty much the last time chiefs have to act without having —

Yes. You’re still entitled to some due process, but when you accept the position, you take the civil service test, you go through. When you accept the position, it’s with a clear understanding that the first 18 months is going to used to evaluate your performance and evaluate your future success in your career — that you can be let go. We would never let anybody go unless we had cause. But you can be let go pretty much for any reason.

… Once somebody passes that probationary period — now every rule and law and union contract comes into effect. Over the years, the municipalities, to placate and coddle law enforcement and the unions, have given up some of the management prerogatives. It is near impossible — near impossible — to take action when action has to be taken.

Q: Let’s talk about the departments you oversaw. Did you see evidence of racism among your officers?

Over the years? Yes.

Q: How did that manifest itself?

Usually, verbal comments. Again, I’m going back to the beginning of my career, until the end of my career, so it’s a 28-year span. Comments, just the way that co-workers were treated.

I’m going to go back and speak specifically about Southampton Village for a second. One of my first field training officers was Brad Smith. He’s a person of color. He’s from the Shinnecock Nation. I started, I think, the same year as Detective Sergeant [Herman] Lamison. I grew up in Southampton. He was two years ahead of me in school. I had known him, not well, but those I believe were the first two people of color that I remember being hired into Southampton Village.

I heard them called derogatory racial terms. It credits both of those gentleman, I think, that they let it go and it never affected their professional performance.

Q: You heard it from their colleagues?

And the public. I remember making an arrest down at Powell Avenue. Again, I’m going back to the mid-1980s. It was a white male, drug abuser, hardcore alcohol abuser, violent guy. Wound up breaking into a couple of cars at the train station. Anyway, Tony Smith — who was a seasonal officer, was my partner for a while in Southampton Village — Herman Lamison, and myself wound up making this arrest. When I tell you the amount of racial epithets that came out of this guy, spitting at those guys and everything.

He wasn’t spitting at me. These are the systemic problems I’m talking about.

Then you get the heated argument that goes on between two cops, and they’re going back and forth, and that word comes out.

Q: So “that word” did come out at times?

Yeah. You know what word I’m talking about — the N word. The word, it comes flying out.

Q: From cops?

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Q: Was that also true at the town level?

All right: I’ve heard that word uttered so many times on every single level. … It’s systemic. It’s systemic. There are people that I’ve heard not use it. There are many people that I’ve heard use it.

Q: When you were chief of either department, was there ever an incident that involved excessive force that you had to deal with, and did that incident have a racial component?

Well, I will say, as just a quick caveat,: Look, I myself have been accused of applying unnecessary or excessive force. I was investigated by the FBI because of a DWI stop that went bad, turned into a foot pursuit and a fight. It’s one of only two times when I called “10-1,” which is the most serious backup call that you put out. That’s the one where it’s, like, “Listen, if somebody doesn’t get here, I’m going to get hurt bad.”

… Anyway, to make a long story short, I was getting my ass kicked. I had a broken wrist. He picked me up and slammed on the ground. … Look, I hit him in the face with a flashlight. It was the only thing I had in my hand. I wasn’t going to shoot him, because he was unarmed, but I did. I hit him right in the mouth with a flashlight and it took some of the fight out of him.

It was investigated and it was cleared as an appropriate support at that time with that incident. It doesn’t matter what year. That would still be an appropriate use of force, because, really, the only two options were my gun hand or the flashlight was in the other hand. I used the flashlight.

Q: Just have to ask: Was that defendant a person of color?

No. White male.

… The police are given an inordinate amount of authority by society to administer force, and possibly deadly physical force under the right circumstances. That’s also where the cultural shift needs to happen, because too many times people articulate the right circumstances on paper.

Q: You mean the police give a description that doesn’t fit what actually happened?

Listen, emotions run high in that job. I’ve seen it. I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, because I’ve been retired for a while now. Have I probably thrown one more shot than I should have back in the day? Most likely. Nothing to the point that we had in Minneapolis or something, but there’s a very fine line.

What I used to preach to the cops, because even when I made chief in 2006, look, it’s not 1985 anymore. Society is different. Didn’t excuse the conduct then, either. But just look: Society is different. Once those handcuffs go on, that’s it. In the car, get him to headquarters, process him, put him in his cell. I don’t care if he spits at you, I don’t care if they called your mother names, I don’t care if they punched you. You use the force to overcome the resistance. Once that resistance is overcome, i.e., getting somebody in handcuffs, getting appropriate backup there, you’re able to control somebody. Get him in the car, get him to headquarters and process them.

Because the day and age of the police administering street justice? No, no, no. Those days are over. They’ve been over for a long time. They probably should have never existed. Not even probably — they should have never existed. But that’s the way everybody was trained. That’s the way the job was performed.

Q: So how do we fix this? What are the steps that need to be taken to address this, in your opinion?

I’m at a point now where, if we don’t get systemic organizational change within law enforcement — and I’m not just talking about the Hamptons or New York City, I’m talking about nationwide — serious criminal justice reforms, there is going to be blood in the streets. This was a wake-up call for government and for law enforcement.

Have you ever seen this level of angst? All right. Everybody was cooped up for three months. You’ve got coronavirus going on. I understand this is an emotional time for the populous. But the level of angst being focused at law enforcement — which breaks my heart, because 99 percent of them are hardworking, good people. They are my brothers and sisters. I keep tight relationships with many, many, many of them. But it’s the culture and it’s the organizations that need to be changed.

It is too easy to hire. It is too hard to fire. There’s nothing in labor law or anything else that says because you get hired as a police officer you are guaranteed to that job for life. Nothing. But that’s the perception.

Q: Is that one of the root problems here?

Yes. It’s a root problem. Look, is there racism in police? Absolutely. I’ve witnessed it. There’s a racism in society. I’ve witnessed that, too. That is a cultural problem. That is not unique to law enforcement. The law enforcement is the focus right now.

I’m going to say this, too: There are far too many police/civilian interactions for low-level crimes. If they’re not going to legalize marijuana on a nationwide level, they need to decriminalize it. The whole drug thing has been a money-making, for-profit enterprise, and they use the police as a mechanism.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. This stuff is difficult to talk about, because it makes me take a serious look at a lot of work I did for 28 years.

During the drug war, the crack years, we had different neighborhoods in Southampton [Village] and Southampton Town that were deeply affected, more so than other neighborhoods. I’m talking about the Black neighborhoods that were deeply affected by the crack and the violence and the substance abuse. We ran around like rabid animals arresting people, arresting people, arresting … I made over a thousand arrests working in Southampton Village and Southampton Town. A thousand. We arrested everybody we could get our hands on, because that’s what we were told to do. That’s what we were told to do by our agencies, by our government. Go get them.

You tell a bunch of adrenaline junkies — because Type A personalities gravitate toward law enforcement, former military — you tell a bunch of adrenaline junkie young police officers go get them? That’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Do you teach them how to de-escalate? Do you teach them how to handle the mentally ill? Do you teach them how to possibly get somebody help with the drug abuse problem? No.

… There needs to be a shift in mindset, or I shudder to think what is going to happen the next time somebody videotapes a person of color being strangled to death for eight minutes.

Q: Is part of the answer rooted in the idea of defunding the police, with the idea being to change the police’s mission and to focus it more, and allow more spending on other social programs that the police have become the defacto service providers of but probably are not trained to do? Is that part of the solution?

Defund the police has two different meanings depending upon who you’re talking to. I think, for government, defund means exactly that. I think LAPD, NYPD, have just shifted a lot of money from their approved police budgets to other community line items, such as mental health, domestic violence, the homeless, which is driven by mental health issues also.

The other portion is like in Atlanta right now — when they chant “Defund the police!” they’re talking about disbanding the police.

Q: In Minneapolis, they’re talking about closing it down and restarting, basically.

Right. Which has been done before, if you’re familiar with Camden [New Jersey]. Camden, high crime area. Department corrupt from the top down. They disbanded, which dissolved the union. … They reformed, and they reformed with a completely different ideology.

There’s been news reports and a couple articles written about Camden as being a success story about the relationship that can exist between the police and the community. They still make arrests. It still has a certain crime rate. They just handle society and the public differently. They de-escalate. They look for every possible option to stay away from that deadly physical force, meaning specifically your firearm as a last resort.

There was a video clip of them dealing with a mentally disturbed person that had a knife. Dangerous situation. They used about 15 cops. They circled the guy, they gave him plenty of room because you can close that distance quick. … They talked to him, they talked to him, they moved with him. They didn’t cut off his egresses, but they kept him controlled, and they were able to take him into custody peacefully.

There are law enforcement executives who will say, “I’m not wasting resources like that.”
I had law enforcement bosses that didn’t want the cops backing other cops up, because they didn’t want them to leave their sector. It’s ridiculous.

Q: Didn’t want to … Say that again?

They didn’t want them to leave their sector, their assigned area of responsibility. “No, no. You have to stay in your sector.” I was, like, we work a single vehicle patrol — but I still have partners. Those are the people who work in my squad. What do you mean I can’t go and back him up? He’s yelling for help into the radio and calling for assistance into the radio! “No, no, no — he’ll handle it.”

Now, what are you forcing the guy to do? You’re forcing him to go physical with somebody.
Because rule No. 1 for myself and every cop who ever worked for me: You go home at the end of the shift in the same condition you came in.
Society can put a lot of restrictions on the police. You can’t put a restriction on there that you’re going to home dead or injured.

Q: Is there enough training in de-escalation? Because that seems to be one of the words that comes up a lot when people talk about the need for reform?

I will tell you it is not enough. It might be eight hours once. It might be four hours annually. It’s not enough.

Q: How does it compare to the amount of other kinds of training?

It’s a fraction. But even the training in firearms is a fraction. … It costs money, and I understand that. But here are we are. Where are you going to invest the money? Do you need a $300,000 armored vehicle?

Yes, I understand that shootings can happen anywhere. I was a great proponent of having some tactical capabilities, even in small agencies. We were never going to have a full-time SWAT team — nor do we need it — but you have to have the training to address that if it comes up to protect yourself and the public. We were trying to do a regional-wide critical incident team from different agencies — but everybody is so territorial.

There’s not enough training with the responsibility level that you’re carrying, by carrying that firearm, being able to arrest people. They’re going to throw around catch phrases. It’s all lip service: community policing, problem-oriented policing, less lethal, and de-escalation. They’re going to spend four hours on it.

Somewhere in this country a year from now, there’s going to be cities burning — because there’s going to be another video.