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Police Reform

Activists attend a rally for police reform in Hauppauge March 15. File photo by Julianne Mosher

By Harry To

Suffolk County Legislator Sam Gonzalez (D-Brentwood) was the lone vote against the reform plan for the Suffolk County Police Department. The reform plan passed 16-1 in the county Legislature earlier this month.

“The passage of this plan today is truly a historic moment in Suffolk County, and I am grateful to all those who came to the table and everyone who took part in the reform process to tackle the toughest of challenges,” said County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in a press release.

In a statement, Gonzalez said that he voted “no” on the reform plan because independent oversight of police conduct was not included, leaving the plan “insufficient.”

“This reform plan is about our future; not only will it affect residents today, but it will also impact generations of residents long after us,” Gonzalez said. “The plan is insufficient and will not be effective unless there is serious discipline for wrongful actions. Clearly, there is a crisis of mistrust and for change to be successful — there must be accountability.”

Progressive groups across the country have advocated for police reform.

Indeed, many Long Island advocates share Gonzalez’s gripes with current reform plans. As a result, they drew up “The People’s Plan,” which includes civilian oversight for police misconduct and the creation of unarmed traffic enforcement.

“The plan that was released by Suffolk County in response to Governor Cuomo’s (D) executive order falls short of the transformative changes to the way we conceive of public safety that this moment in our community members are demanding,” said Jackie Burbridge, co-founder of the Long Island Black Alliance.

On the other side of the aisle, state Republicans attacked the reform bill for different reasons. Some cited the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes as a reason for opposing the reforms, such as state Sen. Alexis Weik (R-Sayville).

“One-party control in Albany has led to laws that have immediately released violent criminals, the repeal of 50-a, and an overall disdain for the men and women of law enforcement,” she said in a press release. “In light of the rising violence we see day in and day out on the news, particularly recent acts of violence against the Asian American community, we must shift course to a focus on restoring safety and accountability to the policies coming out of Albany.”

Still, the 1,000-page Suffolk County Police Reform and Reinvention Task Force Report received overwhelming bipartisan support from county legislators March 30.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Dozens of community activists from across Long Island rallied outside Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) office in Hauppauge this week, asking lawmakers to adopt “The People’s Plan.”

Earlier this month, police reform advocates created their own plan to hold law enforcement accountable and calling on them to be transparent within the community.  

“We’re gathering here today nearly a year after the George Floyd uprisings because our communities took to the street and said enough is enough,” said Elmer Flores with Long Island United to Transform Policing and Community Safety. “We are yearning for change. And for far too long our elected officials have not met our demands with the gravitas that it demands.”

Some of the plan includes civilian oversight of police misconduct, creating unarmed traffic enforcement and ending pretextual stops when someone is pulled over. 

“Mistrust is pervasive between the police and the communities they are supposed to represent,” he added. “And part of that is that we need to get to the root causes of why crime happens and how we can address it and prevent it from happening. But to do that, it requires leadership. It requires bold and effective action that’s going to change the way policing happens on Long Island.”

This plan is separate from the reform Bellone submitted to lawmakers last week, and these local activists demand the reforms be included in the plan due to the state April 1. 

Jackie Burbridge, co-founder of the Long Island Black Alliance, said to the crowd that for years the Suffolk County Police Department has been actively turning a blind eye to crime being committed in this county in order to continue harassing people who are not white. She said the recommendations that the county task force came up with don’t go far enough in preventing or mitigating discriminatory policing. 

“The plan that was released by Suffolk County in response to Governor Cuomo’s [D] executive order falls short of the transformative changes to the way we conceive of public safety that this moment in our community members are demanding,” she said. “Black and brown communities across Long Island are overpoliced, resulting in outsized opportunities for interactions between vulnerable community members and police officers. … It’s not that people are being brutalized because cops see threats. They don’t see threats in our community, they see prey. And what we need is police reform that’s actually going to address that.”

The collective groups have spent months crafting the 12, research-backed proposals for structural reform that make up the 310-page “The People’s Plan” to address numerous structural components of transforming and reimagining policing and public safety on Long Island.

Suffolk’s police reform proposal directs the county’s Human Rights Commission to review complaints of police misconduct. 

However, the police department would still have the power to investigate and discipline police misconduct. Activists say they are asking for lawmakers to consider other measures, like mental health counselors for certain situations, and create a community council to review and hold police accountable for misconduct.

Members from local groups headed to Hauppauge, too, including Myrna Gordon of the North Country Peace Group, to show their support and signs.

“How can we not be here?” she asked. “It’s what we need to do to keep fighting for peace and justice. We need to see that Steve Bellone is on board with ‘The People’s Plan,’ and every peace and justice group in Suffolk County and the Three Village area needs to be on board.”

Peggy Fort, a member of the United For Justice in Policing Long Island and Building Bridges in Brookhaven groups, said ‘The People’s Plan’ addresses not just the community, but could benefit police officers, acknowledging the stresses police officers face. 

“We’re not trying in ‘The People’s Plan’ to micromanage the police department,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is really address the problems and the racial bias that exists.”

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, right, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. File photo

Members of a task force meant to offer reforms to Suffolk police met with community members in the 6th Precinct Dec. 8 through Zoom to listen to concerns.

As part of the Suffolk County Police Reform & Reinvention Task Force, members have been hosting Zoom meetings for each of the town’s seven precincts plus East End towns for community comment. Members of the task force include everyone from Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Suffolk police union president Noel DiGerolamo to NAACP chapter president Tracey Edwards and Daniel Russo, administrator of Assigned Counsel Defender Plan of Suffolk County. 

In a meeting that went on for just under three hours and had over 150 participants Dec. 8, many in the community expressed some fear and apprehension surrounding police, often with people of color citing a different experience with law enforcement members than their white neighbors. A few others shared their general support for police and expressed their thanks for officers’ involvement in the community.

Erica Rechner, director of Opportunities Long Island, which tries to connect youth in underserved communities with jobs in the unionized construction industry, said she mostly works with many young people of color in communities who live in areas with high unemployment, and some come to her with criminal records. The interactions she said she’s had with police have been much different than those of her young clients.

“Their experience with the police department is not one me or my family recognize,” Rechner said. “My experience has been one of safety and security — I’m a white woman. At some point in their shared experiences the police officers are verbally abusive and often escalate to the use of excessive force. There are numerous instances of physical injury while in custody.”

She said she asked these young people to share their experiences at the public sessions, but practically all declined, fearing retaliation.

“Their experience has taught them the police are not meant for them or their community,” she added.

Odalis Hernandez, a graduate program administrator at Stony Brook University, said she was once stopped by police officers at night “with multiple police officers shining a flashlight in every window and asking for my ID and documents,” adding she felt she was being treated as up to no good from the get-go.

“I know of others who have been through much worse,” she said. “We can’t deny that those problems exist, and we need to hear that from all our precincts and leadership. We can’t let the police have a political affiliation because that disenfranchises people in the community.”

Hernandez said such things as bias and de-escalation training should not be a one-and-done class but should be a continuous dialogue for police.

Others criticized the Suffolk School Resource Officer Program, with some speakers saying such officers statistically lead to more physical confrontations and create more of a school-to-prison pipeline. Others said such officers target students who are people of color and treat them differently than white students for the same offenses. 

Michelle Caldera-Kopf, an immigration lawyer and managing attorney for the Safe Passage Project, said that SROs have caused “the wrongful detention and deportation of our students.” She said such officers have shared information about students with immigration authorities, sometimes over the heads of law enforcement.

Others indicated more positive interactions with police. Rob Taylor, a member of the Citizens Academy Alumni Association, said police already do a lot of things in the community people are not aware of.

“Suffolk County has gone through a lot of changes over the years, especially since around 2014 — they’re all EMTs, they’ve undergone crisis training,” he said.

Gail Lynch-Bailey, president of the Middle Island Civic Association, said that with whatever reforms take place, “I hope we don’t lose what’s already working in these relationships — community policing is still essential.” 

She added that police should look for uniformity on how crime data is presented and distributed at civic meetings, with more emphasis on displays and data-driven dialogue, such info to be published for all to see online.

“Real police reform must be data driven, and that data has to include honest breakdowns of who is being charged and where those charges are taking place,” she said.

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) said there should be efforts to expand the positive interactions between community and police, some of which includes just talking about what may be going on in people’s neighborhoods.

“These are all things why we need to have our police department out there, doing events, interacting, because that really supports the mission our police department is here to do,” he said.

Others shared their desire for those Black and brown voices in the community to be heard. Erin Zipman, from Stony Brook, said police need to listen to those, envisioning a future where we don’t have to endanger the lives of citizens or officers, and instead focus on treating “the roots of problems instead of punishing them.”

The task force is part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. This executive order, originally signed in June, cites that every police agency must make a comprehensive review of police departments and their procedures, and address the needs of the community to promote “trust, fairness and legitimacy, and to address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.” 

The county has an April 1, 2021, deadline to create its reform plan for its police department to be eligible for future state funding.