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New York’s police reform agenda, a package of legislation and an executive order signed by the governor earlier this month, mandates significant changes in policing policies and practices in the state and imposes new requirements on local police agencies to work with their communities on policies and practices.

The new bills passed by the legislature, collectively known as the “Say Their Name” reform package, were enacted in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the widespread protests against police brutality that erupted in response to his death.

The package of new laws bans the use of chokeholds, ban racial and ethnic profiling, mandates greater transparency for police personnel records, including civilian complaints, mandates officers to immediately report to a supervisor when they discharge weapons and criminalizes false race-based 911 calls.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order 203, signed June 12, further
mandating that every local government that has a police agency perform a comprehensive review of current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices and, with community stakeholder participation and input, develop a plan to improve them. A public hearing on the plan is also required.

The executive order requires local governments to file their policing plan with the state before April 1 or risk losing appropriations of state or federal funding.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller, a veteran Riverhead police officer of almost 39 years, with the last 18 as chief of the department, said in an interview last Thursday he’s begun writing down ideas for the plan the town needs to develop pursuant to the governor’s order. He said the town supervisor has already begun reaching out to people about participating in the development of the plan.

“We’re in the process of creating a cohesive community group,” Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said in an interview Friday.

“I am currently reaching out to members of the faith community. It will involve the entire community,” she said.

There will be a lot of research involved and it will take time, “but it will be done right,” said Aguiar a retired NYPD sergeant. “Politics will be kept out of this,” she said.

“Some of the governor’s concerns don’t apply to Riverhead,” Aguiar said. “But we’ll get it done. This is state-mandated. You lose funding if you don’t do it,” she noted.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller at a Greater Jamesport Civic Association meeting in July 2018. File photo: Denise Civiletti

“People don’t have a grasp on what a good police department they have in Riverhead,” Hegermiller said. “To lump us in with all these knuckleheads — Not that there’s not room for improvement,” he said. “There is always room for improvement. But I don’t think it’s the police department (as an institution) you’ve got to change. The question is, how do you erase hatred from someone’s heart,” the chief said. Everyone’s got to respect everyone else — and treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman has not yet begun to establish a new task force to comply with the governor’s mandate. He referred questions to deputy town attorney Christine Scalera, whom he said is Southampton’s “point person” on this project.

The town was already conducting a comprehensive review of its policing policies before the governor’s executive order, Schneiderman said.

“We started this process when we brought the new chief on board,” Scalera said in an interview Monday.

Southampton Police Chief Steven Skrynecki addresses a FRNCA meeting in 2018 about his department’s efforts to combat crime in the area. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Chief Steven Skrynecki joined the Southampton Police Department in 2017. He previously served as chief of the Nassau County Police Department.

He said he and his top officers, with help from Scalera, have been “studying the department and looking for ways to improve it“ since he took the post in Southampton.

“First item that drew my attention was the opportunity to be more responsive to complaints made about police officers,” Skrynecki said in a phone interview Monday. “That’s not to suggest we had problems with the officers, but we looked to improve how we handled them when we did have complaints.”

Skrynecki said the town purchased a database tracking system he was familiar with from his work in Nassau.

“It allows us to collect information, to make sure investigations are property carried out,” the chief said. “It has a feature that allows for early recognition if an officer seems to be out of an acceptable range of complaints about alleged misconduct,” he said.

“In addition, we saw an opportunity to increase community outreach,” Skrynecki said, “and we have been doing that on multiple levels.”

Skrynecki said he has met every citizens advisory committee in the town, as well as every civic and community association. The idea was “to better understand their individual needs and concerns,” he said. And they vary widely.

“For example, people in Bridgehampton might have a great focus on traffic concerns — shortcuts, pedestrian crossings,” Skrynecki said, contrasted with another community that could be having problems with drug sales or prostitution, or another community experiencing vehicle break-ins at night.”

The department also has community liaisons who provide information about local concerns on a regular basis, Skrynecki said. That allows the department to create operational plans to meet those individual concerns, he said.

The chief said the department has increased its liaison with school districts in the town.

“We have a full-time school resource officer and several secondary officers (officers trained to work in the schools),” he said. “Through that program we are intimately involved with each school district in the township. We work with the school to identify and mentor students who might be heading in the wrong direction,” Skrynecki said.

“In addition to that, we’ve undertaken an extensive review of all our our policies, recognizing that some of our policies are outdated and some leave room for more modern policing theories and practices,” the chief said.

The town retained the services of a company called Lexipol, which specializes police policies and provides generic guidelines for police departments, which can customize them, Skrynecki said. Southampton also hired a consultant who’s a retired police officer that specializes in policies and she is working with the chief, Scalera and Lexipol on the project.

“We are focusing on certain topics of national concern, such as use of force,” Skrynecki said.

“We’re utilizing nationally recognized recommendations from PERF (Police Executive Research Forum), which we subscribe to and receive daily articles and recommendations for 21st Century policing policies, procedures and rules,” the chief said.

Skrynecki also pointed out the department has a representative “embedded” in the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, meeting with them on a regular basis.

“We are keenly aware of any bias concerns the community has,” Skrynecki said, noting that sometimes people who are not willing to report incidents to police will contact the ABTF. “This allows us to have a very realistic picture in terms of how we’re perceived by the public,” Skrynecki said.

In Riverhead the police chief is a member of the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force. He is also a member of the Riverhead Community Awareness Program Community Coalition.

“I think we are in general well-received by the public we serve,” Skrynecki said. “We work hard to make sure we police without a bias. That being said, I’m certain that we’re not batting a thousand.”

The Southampton chief said the department has reexamined its process for reviewing complaints against officers. A complaint is investigated first by a line supervisor, then it goes to the captain, Skrynecki said. The investigation goes before a disciplinary review board, which makes recommendations to the chief, he said. If there’s criminality involved, the process involves the DA, Skrynecki said.

Civilian complaints about Riverhead Town Police go to the chief, Hegermiller said last week. “They are reviewed and investigated. Me and the captain handle most of it,” he said.

Hegermiller said he can “count on one hand” the number of serious complaints he’s seen in his years as chief. He said he has seen complaints involving racial allegations and profiling
over the years, “but they are few and far between.”

He said he would welcome the addition of a civilian complaint review board to look at complaints after he reviews them.

“I tend to be pretty heavy-handed and I don’t tolerate this crap,” Hegermiller said. “But you have unions to deal with.
You have labor law attorneys to deal with. Then you have politics and politicians to deal with. And then you have DAs and federal prosecutors,” he said.

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