Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller spent an hour fielding questions from the community at Riverhead's first Synergy meeting Monday night, discussing diversity in the department, body cameras and more.
File photo: Denise Civiletti

Synergy has arrived in Riverhead.

The first steps were taken last night in Riverhead for a new program that aims to build bridges between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.

The Synergy program is up and running in several other Suffolk towns, including Southold, and the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force is hoping the program takes root here.

The idea is for people to come together, to get to know each other as individuals, Synergy facilitator Dr. James Banks said in an interview today.

“I’m a prime believer in group therapy,” said Banks, a licensed certified social worker. “It helps people to get to know each other and air their concerns and feelings in peaceful, nonthreatening surroundings,” he said.

More than 35 people, including organizers and members of the Anti-Bias Task Force, participated in last night’s session, which was held virtually due to COVID restrictions in place when plans for the event were drawn. Everyone involved agrees the sessions should take place in person. In other towns, people in attendance are offered a meal, such as pizza, before the sit-down discussion.

“For a first time, it was a nice turnout,” Banks said today.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller represented the police department at the meeting and spent about an hour answering questions put to him by community members — everything from how the pandemic affected the crime rate to when the department will begin implementing recommendations of the Riverhead police reform plan prepared by the Law Enforcement Advisory Panel.

Hegermiller said the crime rate was lower in 2020 but in 2021, “things are coming back around” to the numbers seen in 2019.

As far as the LEAP report is concerned, Hegermiller said, “It seems like the number one issue is the body cam.”

The chief said the town is “trying to find money” for body cameras, which can cost $1,600 apiece. He said he hopes the town will be able to appropriate funding for body cameras in the 2022 budget. The captain and the IT person have been testing different models, Hegermiller said.

Deploying body cameras requires a lot of decisions and the development of new policies regarding storage and use of the equipment as well as data storage, the chief said.

“We all agree that we want it,” Hegermiller said. “So it’s something that will come shortly, I would say it’s just finding the money to do it.”

Banks what plans exist to recruit and make sure the police department has more diversity.

“It’s something that’s really out of our control” because of the Civil Service hiring process, Hegermiller said.

“So you have to get through that whole process. You have to take the test. You have to score well. You have to make it through an applicant investigation before I even get to interview. So that process is usually one out of 10 people make, it one out of eight people make it — somewhere around there — make it to the end of that,” Hegermiller said. “I get very limited choices when it comes down to the applicants that I say most of them are white now.” He said Black applicants will score well on the test, but fall of through the process after that.

The session alternated between Banks reading questions submitted by the community members in advance and individuals on the Zoom conference asking questions directly.

“What should someone do when getting pulled over to let police officers know that they pose no threat to the officer?” Banks asked, reading from a community submission.

“Okay, don’t get pulled over,” Hegermiller said to laughter. “Yeah, so, obey the rules of the road, don’t speed. But when you get pulled over, and I’ve been pulled over, keep your hands in the 10-2 position on the wheel, so the officer can see your hands. If he asks for my license, I say, well that’s in my pocket. Can I get it? That kind of thing,” the chief said.

“So there’s a conversation between me and the officer. I give him or her nothing to fear when I’m sitting there like this,” Hegermiller said, holding his hands up as if placed on the steering wheel.

“If you’re asked to do something, comply with the directive,” Hegermiller said. “I think that’s a good way to go. I can’t see anything happening if there’s there’s compliance and if you’re acting in a safe manner.”

Banks asked about the concept of “driving while Black” — the idea that police pull over Black drivers disproportionately because of their race.

The chief said he has not received any complaints like that. “The only time our officers are pulling people over is when there’s a violation. And that would be the answer… I don’t see that happening. I really don’t.”

Synergy co-facilitator asked how people can make complaints. Complaints can be made either in person at police headquarters or online, Hegermiller said.

Asked about implementing a civilian review board. The chief said the town board is the review board and they have the authority to make the final decision. It’s spelled out in state law, he said.

The chief said he’d like to see police-community relations get back to where they once were. “I think what I’ve seen over the last couple years now is like people shying away from police and stuff like that,” Hegermiller said. “And I think that’s not the way to go. So I think getting back to where everyone trusts each other and talks to each other and worked out their problems together, I think that’s a way to do it.”

John McAuliff of Riverhead asked how the legalization of marijuana will affect policing in Riverhead and the community as a whole.

“First of all, I’m against it,” Hegermiller said. He cited his longtime involvement with the Riverhead Community Coalition for a Safe and Drug-Free Youth. “We have a hard enough time keeping alcohol and prescription drugs away from our youth. They’ll see that it’s legal and think it’s OK to use it,” he said. “It concerns me greatly with youth having that exposure.” Hegermiller said he believes driving under the influence will increase, too.

“We have not been arresting people for marijuana possession for quite some time, unless there was another crime involved,” the chief noted.

Banks asked whether officers have any opportunity for group discussion amongst themselves, when there are incidents of bias, nationally, statewide or countywide. T

“That has an impact on all of us, including offices,” Banks said. “I wondered if there is any mechanism for continuing discussions amongst the offices to address those incidents that don’t happen in Riverhead, but still have an impact on people emotionally?”

“I would say no,” Hegermiller replied, “but I want to say that I’ve tried I think to lead by example when that happened. And that’s why I put out the letter to the community, with the George Floyd incident,” the chief said. “And I don’t think I think they know that it’s not tolerated here, and they don’t tolerate it. So hopefully, we won’t ever go down that road.”

Hegermiller said the East End departments recently started a joint emotional support team, with representatives for every department. It provides a place where officers can discuss difficult emotional issues.

The chief said today he is looking forward to the next Synergy session and looking forward to having it be an in-person meeting.

“I hope even more people participate,” he said. Other Riverhead police officers will be taking part, the chief said.

Anti-Bias Task Force co-chairperson Cindy Clifford said she was really pleased with Synergy’s maiden voyage in Riverhead.

“People are really invested, making suggestions,” Clifford said.

The chief was “very gracious,” she said. “It was nice to see he is very open to ideas and suggestions. He was very forthcoming in his conversation. In his position, I would have been reluctant,” Clifford said.

“I’m not sure what the magic bullet is to get people to understand the potential for this,” Clifford said, “realizing they can have a conversation with the police, striving for more of a sense of community in our community, rather than reading others with suspicion. We can remove the ‘us’ and ‘them’ — it’s just all ‘us.’ That’s what synergy is all about.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.