Policing the East End in Troubled Times

T. E. McMorrow
A quieter bar scene in Montauk has led to far fewer arrests during the summer season of 2020.

Police departments across the country, and across the East End, are now facing two very different existential threats—the COVID-19 pandemic, and the blowback from the Black Lives Matter movement. Each is affecting departments in different ways. “From COVID safety to now heightened officer safety awareness, it’s very difficult times for us,” East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said last week.

Dan’s Independent News Service spoke with Sarlo, as well as the chief spokesperson for the Southampton Town Police, Lieutenant Susan Ralph, about the dual storms departments across the country are weathering, and examined some of the numbers generated by the two departments from the past two years, which demonstrate significant changes in day to day policing in 2020 from years past.

The good news is that crime, as evidenced by the number of arrests on the East End, is down significantly. This is true nationwide as well, according to the FBI’s preliminary report on crime across the country for the first half of 2020, which was released mid-September.

In Southampton, police made 516 arrests from January 1, 2019 to August 31, 2019, according to Lt. Ralph. In the same period in 2020, the Southampton department made 235 arrests, a decrease of over 54%. The decrease in East Hampton’s numbers were even starker: 462 arrests in 2019 through August 31, as opposed to 195 this year, a decrease of 58%. Arrests are down sharply for the year In Riverhead and Southold, as well.

If we narrow the time period down even more in East Hampton, taking May 22 through August 31, roughly the summer season for the two years, with this year’s season occurring during a pandemic, the decrease in arrests goes up even more, dropping from 209 to just 80. That is a decrease of almost 62%.

Nationally, the FBI reported, while shootings spiked in the nation’s largest cities, overall violent crime decreased across the country.

“I think people were pretty much hunkered down for a quite some time,” Lt. Ralph said. “Stores were shut down. You didn’t have your larceny out of stores. You didn’t have your thefts out of stores. You didn’t have your ID thefts using credit cards. You didn’t have that.”

With bars and nightclubs extremely limited in what they could do this year, the squelched late-night East Hampton Town party scene, particularly in Montauk, had a direct correlation in the drop in the number of fights, disputes, and incidents of drunken driving, Chief Sarlo said. Less alcohol in Montauk also equaled less public nuisance charges such as of public urination, as well as less misdemeanor drug possession charges.

Yet, while arrests are sharply down, police calls themselves appear relatively unchanged for the year through August 31, dropping in East Hampton Town from 13,839 in 2019 to 13,443 this year, a decrease of just under 3%. In Southampton, the calls recorded on the department’s event log actually increased, going from 29,931 in 2019 to 31,236 this year, an increase of almost 10%

So, police were as busy as ever this year, if not busier. But, what were they doing?

While noise complaints triggered by bars and other commercial establishments dropped from roughly 50 last year to 21 this season in East Hampton, residential noise complaints in the town skyrocketed from 493 in 2019 to 808 this year. In addition, “We had 125 COVID compliance complaints in 2020, a new designation of call, obviously,” Chief Sarlo said. “The officers have been very busy doing proactive COVID work, and responding to residential noise and Covid compliance calls.”

Reported domestic violence incidents are up in Southampton, but actually dropped in East Hampton, where the roughly 67 reported incidents during the summer time period in question this year versus the 93 in 2019. Southampton’s number of incidents for the year rose from 512 to 580 in 2020.

Sarlo pointed again to the reduction of what in past years has seemingly been an all-night open bar in Montauk, with arrest and conviction records proving that when booze is sold over the counter, drugs are sometimes sold under it. The mixture of alcohol and illicit drugs fuels fighting, which sometimes can lead to a domestic violence incident.

The closure of schools concerns Ralph, when it comes to domestic violence. “Kids who might be in an abusive situation are not going to school.” The abuse they face at home, Ralph said, “would get reported by the school. With them not going to school, that puts people in a dangerous situation. You are stuck home with your abuser at times. It’s very, very important that people have an avenue to cry out for help, so we can get involved, the school can get involved. It is a team effort to help anyone in a domestic violence situation.”

“One of the things that really hit hard with COVID,” Ralph said, “was people’s mental health. There definitely was an increase in calls for that. People were struggling. People are struggling,” she said. This increase in calls her department is seeing includes potentially suicidal incidents.

On the roads, vehicular accidents are down in both towns.

Arrests on drunken driving charges are down sharply as well. This may be a mixed blessing, according to the numbers out of East Hampton.

In that jurisdiction, arrests on driving while intoxicated charges through the year ending on August 31 dropped from 122 last year to just 53 this year, a decrease of 57%, right in line with the overall decrease in total arrests.

However, while the number of accidents that resulted in one of the drivers being charged with DWI in East Hampton has dropped from 31 to 19 this year, that 39% decrease is not in line with the overall decrease in DWI arrests made this year.

That is borne out when narrowing the numbers even more. In July and August alone of this year, of the 19 cases where drunken driving was charged, 10 followed motor vehicle accidents. In 2019, of the 26 DWI cases during those months, only 5 followed an accident.

There are simply less drivers being pulled over for traffic infractions. Total citations written up in East Hampton have plunged from about 2,177 in 2019 to just 832 this summer season. “Caution by officers in reducing the number of street contacts and Covid risk seems to have played into that,” Sarlo said. “A large portion of our arrests [normally] come from traffic stops. Aggravated unlicensed, suspended registrations and DWI’s, so reduced vehicle traffic law enforcement correlates with reduced arrest numbers.”

While the pullback in contact with drivers may have begun with the outbreak of COVID-19, there may be another factor at play. Regardless of its merits, the Black Lives Matter movement has alienated police officers across the nation.

“Here’s the big danger, even in a small, relatively safe community, in trying to balance discussions around improvements without ignoring all of the positive and tremendously professional work we already do,” Sarlo said. “On average, we have more officers suffer injuries each year attempting to de-escalate and diffuse a violent situation, than we have civilian complaints.”

Police officers feel targeted. That feeling is not simply paranoia. In recent days, two officers were ambushed by a gunman while they sat in their patrol car in Los Angeles. In Camden, NJ, a couple who are police officers were at home with their 10-year-old daughter when their house was struck by six shots fired by two gunmen. In the West Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, three officers in an unmarked car were ambushed by a bicyclist on September 18. The targeting is real.

“The national narrative around policing obviously has an impact on everyone who does this tremendously difficult job,” Sarlo said. “There is always room for improvement, and continuous evaluation of procedures and policies, while staying in tune with the resulting relationships with the community. These are important aspects of policing and fortunately part of the fabric of local law enforcement. The current climate seems to have gone so far that cops on all levels feel under attack in some way, simply for their career choice. Watch the news and see the violence towards officers.”

The love of police work as a profession is frequently passed down from parent to child. “I’m sure if you ask most officers if they would allow their kids to become police officers now, the majority of people would say absolutely not,” Ralph said.

She added that the Southampton department has continued its outreach programs into the community. One example is the Civilian Police Academy, which resumed classes after being shut down during the early stages of the pandemic.

“If the newcomers or the hopeful newcomers don’t want this job, who is taking our places when we all retire? Without the support of the public, you are going to see people pull away from this profession. It is sad. It is an honorable profession. People are going to say, ‘I’m not doing that. For what?’ Ralph said.

Ralph worked for several years for the New York Police Department, before joining the Southampton Town Police. She is proud of that time she served in the city. “I would go outside and I would wear my NYPD cap all the time,” she said. “I don’t do that anymore.”

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