Meeting Recap – Geraldine Hart

On November 20, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart addressed the participants in LIMBA (Long Island Metro Business Action). She talked about the effect of bail reform on the county, the department’s efforts to reach out to the community and policing during COVID-19.

At the beginning of this year, bail reform took effect in New York State. This included the elimination of cash bail and discovery reform, which Commissioner Hart called “a major switch for us.” For discovery, all surveillance videos, undercover recordings and 911 calls had to be given to the defense counsel. “That was a tremendous undertaking,” she said.

Since bail reform was enacted, she said, there was a 210% increase in arrested individuals being released on their own recognizance. She said the problem with those who are repeatedly arrested don’t get the help they need, whether it is homelessness, drug abuse or mental health issues. While she agreed that bail reform was needed, she added this was done “wholesale” without any input from local law enforcement, which she found “troubling.” The only bright spot was that the turnaround for discovery was pushed back from five to 35 days, which she said was “a big help for us.”

While Commissioner Hart has seen a drop in violent crime, she has seen an increase in commercial burglaries and auto thefts. For the former, she met with local Chambers of Commerce on how local businesses can protect themselves from theft.

When the COVID-19 crisis started to hit Suffolk, Commissioner Hart said, the department acted quickly, sending out memos to the community, including Spanish-language announcements to Latino communities. They also made robocalls to high schools to alert them of the virus.

“In March, we tackled internally,” she said. “We made sure plans were in place to make sure our essential programs were still running.” This included doubling the number of patrols, sending reports to Telserv rather than to the officers, and adding more beat patrol officers from graduating cadets. As a result, the department had a lower number of infections. “These officers took COVID seriously,” she said. “They were worried about bringing home the disease to their families.”

During the month of April, they reviewed the number of COVID cases in Suffolk. Meanwhile. they worked to get ventilators to hospitals. They also asked businesses to comply. She said, despite what was reported in the media, the noncompliance rate for businesses was only 4%.

In order to improve community relations, Commissioner Hart is requiring officers to record examples of community engagement in which they took part. It could be a pickup game of basketball or talking with a local merchant. In addition to recording crime statistics, officers will be recording statistics regarding community engagement. Going forward, she said, officers considered for promotion will be moved up based on their community engagement. “Community policing isn’t just attending fairs and picnics, it’s about identifying problems and solving them together,” she said.

Officers sat in on four three-hour listening sessions where they heard from local residents about their encounters with police and what could be improved. In addition, she sent out a community survey about interactions with the police. “It’s an opportunity for us to do a better job,” she said. “We aim to be a better department.”

There are other ways that policing has changed in Suffolk, Commissioner Hart said. That includes having 10% of the officers who can speak Spanish and one officer in the squad who is trained in crisis intervention.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, there were over 240 protests in Suffolk, according to Commissioner Hart. However, there was no property damage and no  major incidents. But when protestors marched on and blocked the highways, police had to clear the roads after a protestor was hit by a car. Rather than arrest the protestors, Commissioner Hart reimagined policing — as required by an executive officer by Governor Cuomo — by issuing tickets under the Vehicle Traffic Law, which prohibited protestors from blocking roads. That way, it didn’t criminalize protestors’ First Amendment rights.

In the event an officer is charged with unlawful behavior, Commissioner Hart said, the officer would be suspended without pay; she cannot fire the officer immediately. If the officer refuses to resign, the case would go to arbitration, which can be very expensive and time-consuming. However, she noted that the police do a great job and the positive news doesn’t generate that much publicity.

Of the challenges she sees as commissioner, she said the two are communications because of the size of the department and the operating budget, in which the revenue has been impacted by the coronavirus. Commissioner Hart is hoping that the incoming presidential administration will come through with federal funding.