A Survey for Better Policing in Ocean Beach

The Ocean Beach Police Department wants to hear from you.In keeping with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative executive order, the Ocean Beach Police Department (OBDP) has posted a survey on the Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach website seeking public input to comply with the governor’s mandate. Responses to the survey are anonymous, and it is open to all stakeholders who have had discourse with the OBPD: homeowners, renters, year-round and/or seasonal residents, and employees as well as long- or short-term visitors, through March 13, 2021.Ocean Beach is the only Fire Island community with its own police department, making it one of the 500 jurisdictions in New York State that the executive order applies to. The Say Their Name Reform Order comes in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of policemen last May, taking into account an ongoing pattern of excessive force against minority communities across the nation.”We have to address the tensions and lack of trust between our communities and the law enforcement that serves them,” Gov. Cuomo said in a statement issued last August. “It is imperative that we address this urgent crisis.”The village also has assembled a Police Reform Committee, and held a public comment meeting on Feb. 20, 2021.“This is not one-stop shopping,” said OBPD Chief George Hesse as he addressed those who logged into the meeting. Instead, Hesse explained, police departments across the state are tailoring their plans based on feedback by their constituency.The Ocean Beach Police Reform Committee includes Mayor James Mallott, Chief Hesse, OB Clerk/Treasurer Steven Brautigam, OBPD Officer and Union President John Zois, Village Prosecutor Robert Fuchs, Court Clerk Jonneigh Adrion, Village Attorney Kenneth Gray, OBFD Chief Ian Levine, Ocean Beach Association President Maria Silsdorf, and OB Chamber of Commerce President Christopher Mercogliano. Other committee members include residents Byron Chenault, Kevin Lowry, Diane Montes, Johnny Parham, and restaurant owner Jon Randazzo.Hesse noted that more than 250 surveys were received before the Feb. 20 meeting took place. He also mentioned survey content was slightly modified about a week into it being live online, based on suggestions by some members of the Reform Committee, but that all information collected was going to be used in the information gathering stage of their report to the state.A racially biased incident that transpired late last summer in Ocean Beach, which ultimately made national headlines, was a central topic in the hour long meeting. While several residents praised the actions of OBPD as well as how the community came together to rally around the family that was a victim of the crime, some residents asked if this was enough.“I think we have become a less tolerant community today than we were in the past,” said Martha Mason, a year-round resident of neighboring Seaview. “We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we were to ignore this.”Mason’s candor opened up discussion of “implicit bias,” as third-generation summer resident David Lipsky voiced concern for his multiracial extended family when they come to visit him on FireIsland.Additionally meeting attendees also expressed interest in taking a broader view on the subject of local police reform.“Does the scope of this Reform Committee allow us to extend this discussion to quality of life concerns?” asked Dr. David Simpson. “It goes without saying that disorderly conduct and noise in the downtown business district have been going on for a number of years.”Simpson went on to state disappointment about the large volume of young adults who routinely would not comply with Mayor Mallott’s ongoing COVID -19 Emergency Executive Order to wear face masks in public spaces, including walkways, and the threat to public health this presented last summer.Hesse replied that such topics were not consistent with addressing bias concerns, which is the primary mission of the Reform Committee.“Maybe in some ways it is,” offered Silsdorf. “Issuing a ticket for picnicking on the beach may not seem like a racial issue, but what if the picnickers are people of color who are visiting and unfamiliar with our local laws?”Like many Fire Island communities, the residency of Ocean Beach remains a predominantly white population, but tourism has become increasingly diverse in recent years. There is a saying in Ocean Beach that the visitors of today are the homeowners of tomorrow. The saying sticks because it holds true. With that said, the demographics of Ocean Beach are changing.“The community wants better enforcement,” David Lipsky added. “The police could do a better job with signage as well as educating homeowners, renters, and visitors on health, safety, and our Village Code.”EDITOR’S NOTE: In March of 2007, then Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota indicted Ocean Beach Police Officer George Hesse on charges of police brutality. While Hesse was acquitted of all charges in 2009, the OBPD underwent a policy overhaul during the interim. In June of 2020, a Black Lives Matter march was held between Ocean Bay Park and Ocean Beach; Chief Hesse was instrumental in assisting the organizers with its planning. At the time this article went to press, Spota is awaiting up to a 20-year prison sentence after being found guilty of witness tampering, conspiracy, and obstruction of the investigation of former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke for assault of a suspect in custody and other related charges.The OBPD Police Reform Survey 2021 is available on the Incorporated Village of Ocean Beach website through March 13, 2021. All New York localities must adopt a plan by April 1, 2021, in order to qualify for future state funding.