All local governments in New York State were ordered a year ago to adopt a police reform plan by April 1, 2021, a deadline that has now arrived. At Friday's East Hampton Village Board meeting, the village's police chief, Michael Tracey, spoke of technicalities in the hiring process that have "gotta goΓ" and mental health needs in the community "not often talked about because it's taboo or sensitive."
Among other concerns, Chief Tracey said his department addressed the need to collect race and ethnicity data during traffic stops, as well as to eliminate the "one-in-three" hiring rule. The rule states that only one of the top-scoring three applicants on a test can be hired; police chiefs in both East Hampton and Sag Harbor Villages say that rules out a diverse pool of qualified individuals.
"Exams are not necessarily an indicator of success. It's a sensitive job, best indicated by interview," Chief Tracey told the board.
He drew a comparison: "The state certifies police officers and the state certifies teachers." The teachers go through a rigorous interview process in which impressions from staff, parents, and the school board affect the outcome; the officers do not.
Another problem with the one-in-three rule relates to hiring officers who have been recruited by the department, sent to the police academy for training, and worked for the village for a year or two, full or part time, after passing all the state and Civil Service standards. "And then the test scores come out," Chief Tracey said, "and they get an 80 instead of 95," too low a score to hire "a perfectly qualified candidate. That may be the person we are exactly looking for in the community to diversify our department, because that person is probably someone we reached out to and sponsored for the academy."
State funding to expand mental health, both "in the field and around the clock," is another concern. Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport and Stony Brook Southampton Hospital are "too far away" if there is a mental health emergency, said the chief. "The question is, who do we turn to at three o'clock in the morning, and who can we send these people to if they don't need a transport?"
Stony Brook's proposed emergency medical facility at the Town Hall complex was suggested as a possible site for walk-in mental health assessments, but Chief Tracey said its construction was a long way off.
A majority of residents who responded to a survey or commented on police reform said the department operated in an "equitable manner," he added, though "a fair amount" of respondents said that locals are treated differently from second-home owners. Chief Tracey said he has long been aware of that perception.
He reminded the board that one hallmark of the village department, different from New York City and other East End municipalities, is that officers go on most medically aided cases. A trained officer is often first on the scene if someone is choking or having a heart attack, he said as an example.
In other comments, the chief suggested that an online form be created for continued community feedback, and that it be bilingual. "It's a little intimidating to call up and speak to an officer," he said. "The process itself isn't one that is welcoming or easy to do."
In keeping with state recommendations, Chief Tracey will require his staff to undertake implicit-bias training, something new to the department, and is looking, he said, for the right course. De-escalation training is also in the works; two officers are currently in instructor school to teach it to their colleagues.
Village officers are already studying police principles in Southampton. The chief explained this new initiative as a process where "you get officers to change gears, to use the ears a little more before taking action. It's a common-sense process, but I think as time goes on we jump before we walk, and that's not a critique, but it's something we need to change in the mind-set."
"Consular access" training, under State Department auspices, will also be introduced here. This program lets officers know that if they arrest a foreign national, that person has the right to access to an embassy or consulate.
The Village Police Department will keep its reform committee in place to help advance such issues as mental health and the police hiring process, said Chief Tracey. "It'll take a lot of eyes, ears, and a lot of legwork, and I would like to rely on the committee members to do that," he said.