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Suffolk panel to look at reinventing policing, per Cuomo order

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

A task force that will include the county's top law enforcement officials will help to craft a plan, following Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's directive, to reinvent and modernize local policing, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced Tuesday.

The 30-member advisory group, which will include Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, District Attorney Timothy Sini and Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., will also have on it county lawmakers, civil rights activists and religious leaders.

The panel will conduct eight virtual outreach meetings to get public input into what law enforcement in Suffolk County should look like in the wake of nationwide protests over the spate of deaths and injuries of unarmed black men in police custody. 

The task force will also hold one-on-one meetings with stakeholders in Suffolk County and will also examine existing polices and procedures to determine what changes are necessary to promote fair policing. 

“Over the last few years we have made real progress in diversifying our police force and building community trust by embracing and instituting a number of reforms, but we know our work isn’t done,” Bellone said. “The development of the comprehensive policing plan, with direct input from the community, will help us build upon the progress we have made and implement strategies that will improve policing.”

Cuomo ordered local governments across New York state to develop the plans in June, a few weeks after George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis officer kindled months of nationwide protests over the police killings of unarmed Black men. The plans must be done by April 1, 2021, or the municipalities risk the loss of state funds.

The order came after Cuomo signed a package of laws approved by the State Legislature to increase police oversight and reduce police brutality. 

Bellone’s office is expected to make a formal announcement about the task force on Wednesday. 

“Part of what we will be doing is sharing ideas and a vision moving forward,” Sini said. “Listening will be key for elected officials. I am looking forward to hearing what people have to say.” 

Hart said she is looking forward to hearing from community members as well as sharing what the department has done to promote fair policing, including bias training for 1,600 officers, de-escalation training, language access and minority recruitment. 

“This gives us an opportunity to bring to the table the things we are doing,” Hart said. 

In addition to the county’s top law enforcement officials, the task force will also include Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president Noel DiGerolamo as well as civil rights activists, including NAACP Long Island regional director Tracey Edwards, who along with attorney Frederick Brewington wrote a letter to Cuomo last week complaining Bellone’s office had not yet reached out to community groups.

The task force also includes Serena Liguori, the director of New Hour for Women and Children, which works with female inmates. She helped organize Black Lives Matter protests this summer with the Long Island Social Justice Action Network. 

“We make progress when we sit down at the table and respectfully listen to one another,” Bellone said. “We make progress when we give everyone an opportunity to participate in the process.”

The task force’s community meetings will focus on the seven precincts in the Suffolk County Police District. The eighth meeting will focus on the East End, where Suffolk police work closely with several town and village law enforcement agencies. 

The plan will need to be approved by the Suffolk County Legislature before it is sent to the governor’s office.

Deputy County Executives Vanessa Baird-Streeter and Jon Kaiman will represent Bellone’s office on the task force, which will also include Suffolk Legislature Presiding Officer Rob Calarco, Majority Leader William Spence and Minority Leader Tom Cilmi. 

“It is important that in doing this work, we hear from a large contingent of voices and bring to the table community members from across the spectrum,” Calarco said. “This is a tremendous opportunity to consider our policies with fresh, open eyes, and to engage in honest, fact-driven dialogue.” 

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