The outrage and protests over the killing of George Floyd by police officers has moved into a new stage. While many are still taking to the streets to demand justice, groups and individuals have …
The outrage and protests over the killing of George Floyd by police officers has moved into a new stage. While many are still taking to the streets to demand justice, groups and individuals have started to direct their anger to creating change through the political process. We have seen new legislation passed by city councils, county Legislatures, and in state capitals. Even Congress, which is not normally prone to quick action, is considering several pieces of national police reform legislation. Many activists have taken up a new call to “defund the police.” These activists have many laudable goals, but the police have a role to play in this effort as well. Positive reform will require that all parties come to the table so we can find a solution that protects our community, ends systemic racism in policing, and heals a deep wound in our country.
Suffolk County has faced its own challenges when it comes to our police department. Thirty-five years ago, our department’s hiring practices came under scrutiny because of the lack of diversity among our officers. This issue manifested itself in how the department was policing, showing a clear bias against communities of color. In 2008, the murder of Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue uncovered a huge chasm between our police department and our Spanish-speaking community. It further emphasized the need for reform in our county and the necessity to open up the lines of communication between officers and the public they are sworn to serve.
Following these two incidents, Suffolk County entered into two consent decrees under the Justice Department, the first in 1986 and the second in 2013. These agreements have helped the department reimagine itself. In many ways, it has allowed Suffolk to reach many of the goals that are now being talked about by the defund movement.
In response to the 1986 consent decree, the Suffolk County Police Department worked to improve the diversity in our police force. In the 2000s, the police exam was rewritten to remove biased questions that kept people of color from entering the police academy. More recently, the department has invested in recruiting candidates from minority communities and is making substantial progress. For the June 2019 police exam, it was estimated that at least 34 percent of all applicants were minorities. The department is also making efforts, in conjunction with the county’s Economic Opportunity Council, to help those with low incomes apply by covering the fee to take the police test. Having a police department whose demographic mirrors that of the community is critical to fostering trust, understanding and mutual respect among all people.
Suffolk County also recognizes that policing is not just about making arrests. Our officers work incredibly hard to ensure that residents see them as more than just a uniform. As a result of the 2013 consent decree, SCPD has made huge strides to improve its relationship with minority communities and moved to a community-based policing model. SCPD has a dedicated Community Relations Bureau that fosters active and open avenues of communication between the department and our communities. Officers regularly attend community functions, and the bureau’s multifaceted approach to community outreach includes initiatives such as “The Ugly Truth” presentations to combat the growing prescription drug and heroin epidemic, and “Coffee With a Cop” programs to encourage approachability. In Gordon Heights, the officers from 6th Precinct volunteer time to partner with the Greater Gordon Heights Civic Association to host “Cooking with a Cop.” The Suffolk County Police Athletic League enables more than 20,000 children to participate in recreational activities while tightening the bond between police officers and young community members. Officers from the 5th Precinct utilized PAL to work with Madres Latinas to set up a summer soccer clinic in Patchogue. Additionally, each Suffolk County police precinct hosts a community meeting once a month, and the department conducts annual community surveys. Officers also engage in prevention strategies that have included reaching out to our youth and engaging positively with ex-offenders. These efforts have made our communities safer and fostered trusting relationships.
These reforms are a positive step forward and something to be proud of in Suffolk County, but protesters and activists have raised other issues in police conduct that Suffolk County must address as well. Officers in Suffolk County have a duty to intervene and stop an officer using unreasonable force on an individual and to report these observations to a supervisor. Chokeholds and strangleholds were prohibited and were recently outlawed in New York State. Additionally, Suffolk County officers undergo implicit bias training, and a number of them have participated in a Crisis Intervention Training Initiative, which teaches de-escalation techniques.
This is not to say there is no room for change in how police funding is expended.
When you look at the county portion of your tax bill, you will notice that much of your county taxes goes to the police budget. We are always striving to dig deeper – to be better – with an eye for identifying potential areas for implementing reform, adding transparency, and increasing accountability. The county is exploring different financial opportunities to utilize body cameras; as of now, all members of the Highway SAFE-Team wear body cameras under a grant program. We are also taking note of the successful passage of measures to repeal 50-A, the state law that shields police officers’ disciplinary records from the public.
The protest movement has raised legitimate and important issues with how we conduct policing across this country. Perhaps because we have faced so many issues in the past, Suffolk County was already on the path to the community-based policing model that many are demanding. As a county legislator, I am tasked with protecting the health and safety of all Suffolk residents. I am proud of the job our Suffolk County police officers and their dedication to all Suffolk County communities. I also have a duty as an elected official to hear the protestors’ cries, find solutions that work to eliminate systemic racism, and hold accountable those who abuse their power. Please know: we are here to listen. We are here to understand. We are here to act. And above all, we are here for you.