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Officials seek to improve community relations

Freeport Police Department submits reform plan

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Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order last June, the Freeport Police Department has submitted its proposed police reform plan for a vote by the village board at its next Village Hall meeting on March 22.

Cuomo’s New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Executive Order 203 was enacted shortly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin last May.

Freeport’s 32-page plan comes after the police department spent months internally reviewing policies and procedures and gathering input from residents through more than 30 meetings and on-the-street interactions. 

Freeport Police Chief Mike Smith said the plan focuses on reinforcing training, gaining community trust and increasing transparency. 

“We reached out to the local civic organizations, leaders of the clergy, the school district, the NAACP, members of the Hispanic community and various other groups for their input and to join our reform committee,” Smith said. “We even asked questions to passersby on the street. We wanted all that we could get.” 

Increasing transparency 

One of the biggest changes to improve transparency within the village comes in the department’s decision to issue biannual reports on civilian complaints, use of force and summonses. The reports will be available on the village website. 

The FPD also plans to improve summons tracking to include the demographics of the people involved in investigative stops to see if there are any racial disparities regarding who is stopped. While the FPD does not condone racial profiling, the issue does persist throughout the U.S., so examining the new data would help commanding officers address the issue locally, should it appear. 

About stop and frisk

Smith said that systemic racial bias and injustice was often a heated topic in the community, and while residents asked for an end to the state’s stop-and-frisk policy, he said the department would be unable to do away with it unless state legislation were passed. 

The state policy is said to disproportionately affect Black and Latino residents. Rather than a simple stop and frisk, FPD officials push for what they call, “Stop, Question and Sometimes Frisk.” The department also heavily documents how the stops are performed and if any action is taken to ensure no one demographic is given leeway or harsh treatment.     

Freeport officers have also been instructed to issue appearance tickets in lieu of arrests for marijuana offenses. 

Body cameras

Another key issue of transparency that has come up in police reform is the use of body cameras.

Unlike the Nassau County Police Department, which has made the use of body cameras a new mandate for officers to wear, the Freeport Police Department was the first on Long Island to have its officers wear body cameras in 2015.  

Deputy Chief Michael Williams, who has been in the department for 31 years, said that while officers were hesitant to wear the body cameras at first, they have now come to embrace them as a means of protection. 

“The body cameras actually help prove that they acted in the right way,” Williams said. “They’re not afraid of false accusations or people saying they did something wrong because the proof is in the cameras.”

“There are no negatives from wearing a body camera,” Smith said. “Our officers won’t go out until they’re sure the cameras are up and running, because they know it’s there for them.” 

Use of force

Williams, the department’s first Black deputy chief, added that Freeport officers did receive racial-bias training during their time at the Nassau County Police Academy, and that the academy will hold another training on the topic in the spring, which Freeport officers will be mandated to attend. 

The department has also gone over the use of force that restricts breathing, saying officers will not use any restraint technique during arrest or transport that inhibits a restrained person’s breathing.  

Police brutality was at the forefront of the discussion with the community following the Akbar Rogers case, in which Freeport Police officers chased the 44-year-old man, who had a bench warrant for his arrest, and wrestled him to the ground on Dec. 3, 2019. Video captured by a bystander shows seven white officers on top of Rogers, a Black man, with one officer kicking him and another punching him.       

Rogers and his attorneys said he suffered a fractured wrist and severe injuries to his shoulder and back.  

Although the County District Attorney’s Office ultimately decided not to file charges against the officers last year, D.A. Madeline Singas said she found the officers’ use of expletives and abusive language “distributing.” 

Village and police officials said they could not comment on the case because of pending litigation, after Rogers filed a $25 million lawsuit against the village and county. 

Connecting with the community

To help quell friction in the community and improve the department’s relationship with the community, Smith said the FPD is looking for new ways to interact with the public. 

Aside from the Adopt-a-Cop program running in the Freeport School District, where officers come to talk with students, the FPD is now taking part in regular story reading sessions with the schools to help develop a bond between the officers and children in the community. 

The FPD’s Community Affairs Division will also take part in the NCPD’s new Young Adult Council. A council will be in every precinct and be composed of at least six members between the ages of 17 and 23 to relay what they would like to see in police reform. The Freeport officers will be part of the 1st Precinct council.  

The Community Affairs Division has also started hosting small tours of the FPD headquarters on North Ocean Avenue. Smith hopes to expand the tours in the future when Covid-19 restrictions are eased. 

He said that the department would also look to hold block parties and special events once social gatherings can occur again to create more opportunities for civilians to talk with officers. 

To view the current draft of the reform plan, visit bit.ly/2P08Wsm.