Timing Right For New Policing Policies In Sag Harbor

Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

The policies of police departments — especially when it comes to the use of deadly force — have come under scrutiny in recent weeks following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last month and the transformation of the Black Lives Matter movement into a national cause.

But even before Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a call for major reform of police departments across the state, Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire had begun a top-to-bottom review of his department’s policies and guidelines, many of which date to the 1980s, if not before.

Chief McGuire has been working with a company called Lexipol, a web-based firm that writes policies for police and fire departments and other agencies and assigns an expert to work along with its customers — in this case Rick Downes, the retired chief of the Greece Police Department near Rochester.

When the process is completed later this year, the department will have adopted some 200 different policies, ranging from guidelines for how to respond to a routine call to when to use force. In many cases now, Village Police do not yet have official policies on the books — how to handle a domestic violence call, for instance — and instead rely on best practices shared by other departments.

This month, the chief has rolled out four new policies for his officers — including one on the use of force, another prohibiting bias among officers based on a subject’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other attributes, proper handling of domestic violence calls, and procedures to follow when pursuing a vehicle involved in a crime.

“After the death of George Floyd and the issues surrounding it, I felt it was important and timely to get this out to my officers,” he said.

The policy on the use of force, for instance, gives officers plenty of latitude as situations dictate, but they are expected to use “well-reasoned discretion” when deploying that force.

“The Sag Harbor Village Police Department recognizes and respects the value of all human life and dignity without prejudice to anyone,” the policy states. “Vesting officers with the authority to use reasonable force and to protect the public welfare requires monitoring, evaluation and a careful balancing of all interests.”

An important update, the chief said, is a requirement that any officer witnessing a misuse of force by another officer is required to report it. “An officer who observes another employee use force that exceeds the degree of force permitted by law should promptly report these observations to a supervisor,” the policy states.

Similarly, he said, the department is adding a new official policy aimed at targeting bias by officers based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. “It is the policy of this department to provide law enforcement services and to enforce the law equally, fairly, objectively, and without discrimination toward any individual or group,” it states.

A new policy guiding officers in how they should handle domestic violence calls is also among the first to be rolled out. That policy requires officers to consider such calls to be “among the highest response priorities” and states the department’s philosophy is to consider domestic violence as criminal behavior.

The policy includes requirements that officers get backup before entering a domestic disturbance scene and to properly document injuries and obtain statements at the scene. It should say this: Yet, it also requires that officers “facilitate victims’ and offenders’ access to appropriate civil remedies and community resources whenever feasible.”

Another new policy updates language for the pursuit of a vehicle used in a crime while reiterating the importance of balancing the importance of apprehending a suspect with the risks involved.

The Lexipol program, which gives officers online access to the new policies, costs the department $5,931 per year. Although that may sound expensive, the chief said it could potentially save the village a significant sum in the event of a lawsuit.