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Long IslandSuffolk

Suffolk police to soften approach with protesters

A Suffolk police officer talks to supporters of

A Suffolk police officer talks to supporters of Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) as they stage a counterprotest to Make the Road Action in Patchogue on Saturday, July 16, 2016. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk police are taking a gentler approach with protesters, deploying officers to rallies wearing light blue “community policing” jackets that cover weapons and promising not to use crime scene tape to cordon off demonstrations.

Activists met with Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini and County Executive Steve Bellone in recent weeks and voiced concern that heavy police presence and the yellow tape feeds a narrative that protesters are dangerous.

“A lot of conservative media and conservative politicians are framing us as criminals,” said Cindy Morris, 38, a Stony Brook resident who formed the group Time2Care LI after November’s election. The changes, she said, “are part of making sure that we, protesters, are viewed as part of the democratic process, not criminals.”

Suffolk police want to “set a tone that is welcoming, not stifling, of First Amendment activity,” Sini said.

“The Suffolk County Police Department is the people’s Department, and we have an obligation to ensure that public demonstrations are done lawfully and peacefully,” he said in a statement.

Assistant Police Commissioner Justin Meyers confirmed that some officers would wear blue jackets while others would be in their regular uniforms.

“There will be times when it’s more appropriate for public safety to also have uniformed officers. When and where we can deploy blue-jacket officers, we will make an effort to do so,” Meyers said.

Long Island has seen a surge in public protests by liberal groups since the election of Republican President Donald Trump.

Bellone reached out to activists after backlash against a proposed county law that would have charged a fee for protests and required police to be notified 60 days in advance of a gathering. Bellone’s administration quickly withdrew the bill and said the intent was not to target protests, but rather to target for-profit events.

Ruth Cohen, 78, a protester from Lake Grove, said the meetings with county leadership were productive.

She had complained of being joined by a dozen police officers as the lone protester outside a Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) event in February.

“It makes us look like we’re troublemakers to anyone driving by. The visuals were very bad for us,” she said.

Many of the protests have been directed at Zeldin and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) in attempts to get them to oppose Trump policies.

Zeldin declined to comment. King, in a phone interview, said while he thinks the protesters are “misguided” he’d leave it up to police how to handle the rallies.

“The last thing I’d do is tell the police how to do their jobs,” King said. “I have high regard for Commissioner Sini.”

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