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WSHU's Charles Lane follows the different paths taken by Suffolk and Nassau counties on Long Island to undergo mandated police reform.

Suffolk Warms To Civilian Oversight, But Not Enough For Local Police Reformers

Suffolk County police
Elvert Barnes
/
Flickr

After first dismissing civilian oversight of the police, several Suffolk County officials appear to have warmed to the idea of allowing civilians some input over how police misconduct is disciplined. Although, there is still a significant gap between what police reformers want and what officials have so far described.

  • Police officials at first dismissed suggestions of Civilian Complaint Review Boards as “not effective”
  • The county’s objection centered around the cost — as much as $20 million
  • After pressure from advocates, officials then suggested “restorative justice” or “mediation” type programs
  • Administrators of such programs say they can’t do what CCRBs can do
  • Suffolk says “everyone has an opportunity to be heard,” but what happens after that is unknown

Since October, both Suffolk and Nassau officials have formed task forces to consider potential reforms to policing. Doing so is a requirement of an executive order from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo following the death of George Floyd.

In a series of public and non-public meetings, advocates of reform have been pushing for what are commonly called Civilian Complaint Review Boards, or CCRBs. These boards have existed around the country for years in various forms.

But they don’t exist on Long Island, where — at least in Suffolk — how police are policed has been scrutinized by federal investigators on multiple occasions.

Reformers say CCRBs will give confidence to people of color who say they are treated unequally by police. However, in one meeting Deputy Police Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis said flatly that CCRBs don’t work.

“Some have tens of millions of dollars. They have their own investigators. And they’re not finding that the results are that different. So if you’re going to pay $10 or $11 million, or $20 million, you would hope it would be effective,” Mention-Lewis said.

Mention-Lewis said this in a November meeting with the Suffolk County African American Advisory Board. WSHU received a recording of the meeting.

In the meeting, the chairman of the board, James Banks, tried telling Mention-Lewis that people are asking for a mechanism so that it’s not police policing themselves.

Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter responded: “But if it doesn’t work, and the stats show it doesn’t work, then maybe that’s not what you need, but maybe there’s something else.”

Suffolk Warms To 'Another Solution'

After this November meeting, members of the task force met separately with the groups Long Island Advocates for Police Reform and Accountability, LI United to Transform Policing and the Center for Policing Equity. These groups pushed hard for a CCRB to be created in Suffolk.

The day after one of these meetings, Mention-Lewis was asked about CCRBs again.

“As a matter of fact one of the groups we met with last night gave a comprehensive — really comprehensive — report,” she said, indicating that the proposal would be presented to the full task force.

She reiterated her skepticism, mostly centered on the potential $20 million price tag. But then she offered a qualification.

“However, there is the argument that while they may not solve all the problems, they do give another solution,” she said.

Baird-Streeter further explained that while a CCRB might not be the solution, there could be something slightly different that provides additional oversight.

“And one of the things we talked about is in reference to restorative justice and mediation and an opportunity for those who have been harmed to have that opportunity. So if you look at Newark, Newark has that component of restorative justice and that you don’t necessarily have to go through IAB if both sides agree to come together and have a conversation and agree to mediation,” Baird-Streeter said.

Restorative Justice And Mediation Models

It’s not clear to which program in New Jersey Baird-Streeter was referring.

Newark has a CCRB, a restorative justice training seminar and a nonprofit that facilitates mediations. But they are all different programs that serve different functions.

“Even though there are all these things going on in Newark, they are not an instead-of-a-CCRB; they are an in-addition-to,” said Shari Silberstein, executive director of Equal Justice USA, which runs Newark’s restorative justice program.

She said CCRBs do very specific things. They investigate and discipline allegations of misconduct. Mediation don’t do that, she said.

New Jersey courts recently stripped key powers away from Newark’s CCRB after opposition from police unions.

Drafting Toward A Consensus

Members of Suffolk’s police reform task force are now drafting a report of recommendations that will go before County Executive Steve Bellone and then on to the county Legislature for approval.

How that process will function is largely a mystery to many people involved.

In a statement the county said that all stakeholders are being brought to the table and that “everyone has an opportunity to be heard.”

What happens after they are heard is unknown.

Multiple task force members who asked not to be identified by name, confirmed that deputies to Bellone have warmed to the idea of CCRBs. They were optimistic that a CCRB would be a recommendation in a draft report.

They were, however, much less optimistic that Bellone would allow that recommendation to move forward.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.