When a horseback rider discovered a noose hanging from a power line in a remote area of Sag Harbor last year, it sparked a debate that led to the creation of a new hate crimes policy for the Southampton Town Police Department. According to the policy, detectives from the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Unit will assume the lead in investigating such offenses.
Town residents fund certain specialized county services, such as the Hate Crimes Unit, through taxes.
Before the noose was found on October 28, the department had no formal policy for handling such incidents. Though Southampton Town Police Chief James Overton said the noose was offensive, the incident was not considered a hate crime because there was no intended victim, a criteria necessary under New York State Law. “In practicality, there was no violation,” the chief said.
But in response to concerns raised by the community, the Southampton Town Board adopted a resolution, initiated by Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst, directing the chief to create a hate crimes policy. The Town Board passed that resolution on Tuesday, November 12, and less than a week later, Chief Overton had drafted a policy that hands primary duties over to the county.
“I took it one step further,” Chief Overton said, adding that he wanted to reassure the public that the department takes bias and hate matters seriously.
The resolution, as adopted, suggested that the department call on the county for resources and assistance in dealing with hate crimes and related incidents “should the need arise.” That language, in the view of Patrick Aube, president of the town’s Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, is acceptable, but Mr. Aube said he is unhappy with the chief’s handing over primary duties to county detectives.
“I’m all for coming up with a policy, whether that’s for hate crimes or any other crimes,” Mr. Aube said, adding that consulting the county in certain matters is good practice. “But we are one of the best police departments and are capable of handling these crimes without turning them over to the county.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said the intent behind the resolution was to instill trust in the public that bias and hate crimes were being dealt with earnestly, not to impose policy or micromanage the force. “I have full confidence in the police department and its personnel to handle these cases,” Ms. Throne-Holst said.
In addition to the noose found in Sag Harbor, the November beating and stabbing death of an Ecuadorian immigrant in Patchogue has brought the issue of hate crimes front and center. Federal investigators are looking into how the county deals with hate crimes in reaction to various advocacy groups claiming a lackluster response by county authorities.
In bringing in county detectives, Chief Overton said he is trying to work with the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, which requested county involvement. “I’m trying to cooperate. I’m doing what I can to work with them,” the chief said.
As outlined by the department’s new policy, the county will also have the responsibility of determining if an offense is a bias or hate crimes event. “All hate crimes include bias, but not all bias incidents are hate crimes,” Chief Overton said.
Mr. Aube said he understood the sensitivity of hate crimes and bias issues, but added the department was well equipped to handled them.
“Everyone takes these matters with the utmost seriousness,” he said. “But we’re having a responsibility taken away from us when we’ve done nothing wrong in the first place.”