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Suffolk says plan increases police accountability; critics say more needed

The Suffolk County Legislature is scheduled to vote

The Suffolk County Legislature is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a sweeping reform plan for its police department. Credit: Newsday Staff / John Keating

The Suffolk County Legislature is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a sweeping police reform plan crafted after nationwide protests last year over alleged racism in policing.

At more than 1,000 pages, Suffolk’s plan would enact significant changes to how the county polices its nearly 1.5 million residents, reform backers said, including measures to increase accountability, transparency and oversight.

The plan "addresses the culture of the police department and changes the paradigm in which the department and police officers operate," said Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter, who co-chaired the Suffolk task force behind the proposal.

But critics said the plan does not go far enough to fight bias in law enforcement or rein in the county’s police department, which has been under consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice for discrimination since 2014.

"It is a step in the right direction," said Shanequa Levin, the founder of LI United to Transform Policing and Community Safety. But "it doesn’t go deep enough."

Tuesday's vote comes just two days before a deadline set by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for municipalities across New York to review policing practices and develop proposals to combat racial bias. Cuomo called for the reforms amid the widespread outcry that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.

Among other changes, Suffolk’s plan would:

  • Require police officers to wear body-worn cameras.
  • Propose legislation expanding the powers of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission to review and report on police misconduct.
  • Have mental health experts respond to 911 calls.
  • Propose legislation requiring the county to collect and make public police data on crimes, traffic safety, 911 calls, department demographics and other topics.

"We’re adding layers of transparency, accountability — holding people responsible for what they do," said Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman, the other task force co-chair.

The plan falls short of changes recommended by Levin and other activists in their own reform proposal dubbed the People’s Plan.

Levin, in an interview, took particular issue with the decision to not empower the Human Rights Commission to discipline officers that behave improperly.

"If they don’t have the power to include disciplinary action that the police commissioner abides by, then nothing real will be done," she said.

Another sticking point for activists: a recommendation to prioritize putting police officers in middle schools.

The county has twelve "school resource officers," as they are known, who work in local middle and high schools, where they seek to establish good relations with students and staff and perform law enforcement functions when needed.

The reform plan recommends school districts prioritize placing officers in middle schools instead of high schools to make it easier to forge positive police relationships with students at a young age.

Critics say such officers make it more likely children will get caught up in the criminal justice system or be deported.

"What would ordinarily be a school disciplinary issue turns into a reason for an arrest when the police are there," said Irma Solis, the Suffolk County chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The People’s Plan called for eliminating school resource officer programs entirely.

"Our feedback from students is that it makes them feel very, very uncomfortable," said Peggy Fort, one of the People’s Plan authors and a former Long Island teacher.

Suffolk school superintendents expressed varied feelings about resource officers.

"I think it’s a terrific program," said Brentwood schools Superintendent Richard Loeschner. "They've had a positive impact on so many kids."

Donna Jones, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools, said she wasn’t sure she would want officers in her middle schools.

"We want to be careful about the tone and the message we are sending to our children in middle school," she said.

Suffolk legislators who sat on the task force expressed optimism Monday that the reform package would pass.

Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) said the plan "accomplishes meaningful change." Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) called the plan "a fair compromise."

The legislature is also scheduled to vote Tuesday on a reform plan for the county Sheriff’s Office.

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