By Nancy Marr
Following the death of George Floyd, Governor Andrew Cuomo in June of 2020 issued Directive 203, requiring all NYS counties to write a plan to reform the policies of their police departments by April 21, 2021.
In September 2020, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced the formation of a task force, saying “The development of the comprehensive policing plan…will help us build on the progress we have made and implement strategies that will improve policing.”
In addition to ten task force meetings, ten listening sessions were held throughout the county, in 2020 and 296 community members offered community input. In March 2021 the plan was approved by the Legislature. In December 2021, the Legislature codified the plan to give the Human Rights Commission the responsibility for providing citizen review; and it was submitted to the Governor on April 1. The reform and reinvention plan focuses on the following:
Training and Continuing Education — enhanced accountability through the use of body cameras, training in de-escalation, implicit bias, the duty to intervene, and integrating community-based organizations into academic training for all police.
Mental Health Response — the plan calls for overhauling the police department’s mental health response, and collaborating with mental health partners. A 911 operator answering a call will speak to the caller to “assess the nature of the service needed.” If there is no emergency or safety concern, the call will be transferred to a behavioral health center. If the operator concludes that there is a risk to the safety of persons, a contact will be made to a Mobile Crisis Team and the SCPD.
Police Accountability and Citizen Review of SCPD — A key provision of the Suffolk reform plan is civilian oversight of the SCPD through the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission’s Administration of Justice Committee (AOJ). In January 2022, during the pandemic, the Human Rights Commission began the long task of implementing the citizen review panel, exploring and selecting a platform for the submission portal and hiring new staff. After training the investigators and commissioners for their new roles, it went live in March 2023.
Prior to the reform, residents making complaints would contact the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) of the Police Department which was responsible for investigating and responding to the complaints. A complaint may now also be filed with the Human Rights Commission through its online portal by phone or on line.
The HRC Executive Director and investigators are provided with an IAB case file number, and HRC investigators review police misconduct investigations in tandem with IAB by means of access to a shared date portal, Axon Evidence. The HRC investigators review cases on a daily basis, and the HRC Executive Director provides a general update on the complaints at monthly meetings.
Prior to a final determination of the complaint, IAB will share its recommendation with the HRC investigators. If the IAB and HRC cannot agree on the final disposition, HRC can notify the Deputy Police Commissioner and/or the County Executive Police Accountability Liaison, who facilitates conversations between members of the Suffolk County Police Department (SCPD), SCPD Internal Affairs Bureau, and Human Rights Commission to resolve discrepancies in decisions.
It remains to be seen how a serious disagreement would be solved. Once the disposition is finalized, the Human Rights investigator and/or the police department shares with the complainant the final determination and actions to be taken. Complainants will be able to call Suffolk 311 to be connected directly to the unit.
Information is being compiled by the HRC Committee regarding the public’s experiences with the SCPD and the investigation process in order to monitor how much progress has been made to foster a positive relationship between the SCPD and the public. It is important that all Suffolk County residents know how complaints are made. Go to the HRC portal, https://suffolkcountyny.siviltech.com/, for a complaint form and a breakdown of the complaints made in 2023.
We will be looking for a report from the Commission about whether the process has been effective and recommend that our new County Executive will select a new police commissioner who will continue to implement the reforms.
Nancy Marr is Vice-President of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. Visit www-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.