The Town Board, after questions from a resident at Tuesday’s work session, reiterated their position that there were no racial issues involved with an encounter between a police officer and a woman at South Ferry on the night of July 18.
Eleanor Oakley’s questions, directed to the board in their role as police commissioners overseeing the department, revealed that the African-American woman, a visitor staying with a friend on the Island, had been contacted by the Police Department. According to Supervisor Jim Dougherty the woman, who was stopped and questioned, “really didn’t have a problem” with the encounter.
According to police reports, the officer responded to a call from the Southampton Police Department regarding a burglary in progress in North Haven, asking to check the Island side of the ferry for suspects arriving on foot.
The officer waited through several arrivals and stopped the only suspect, the woman who emerged on foot.
The Shelter Island Police report initially said no problems were noted. But a week later, in a letter to the Reporter, Jackie Black identified the passenger as her houseguest, returning from a fundraiser in Bridgehampton, who had been waiting for a cab to take her to Ms. Black’s house.
The police reported that the officer asked for identification, and when she responded that she had none, the officer looked in her bag. Police reports said the officer asked if he could check her bag. Finding a business card that identified her as a White House employee, the officer “backed off,” Ms. Black wrote. The police said the officer offered to give her a ride, but she preferred to wait for the cab.
In the commissioners’ statement, they added they had “made some suggestions” to the department “regarding procedures to follow in the future in such instances.”
Tuesday, Ms. Oakley asked, “what is your comfort level with the way the issue was handled?”
Supervisor Dougherty said the commissioners “met immediately” with Police Chief Jim Read and Detective Sergeant Jack Thilberg and “we grilled them pretty extensively,” but found no basis for racial allegations.
Chief Read echoed that, saying, “any profiling or allegations of profiling are unfounded. The officer was just doing his job.”
Ms. Oakley asked if a similar situation arose would the board be satisfied if it was handled the same way, specifically an officer asking for identification and then going though a woman’s pocketbook.
“My understanding is that would not happen again,” Councilman Paul Shepherd said. He noted the officer had been “operating without sufficient information,” and “it’s been discussed at length with him.”
Chief Read added that radio communications of the burglary incident had not provided enough information for the officer.
Ms. Oakley said she’d like to ask other members of the board about police procedures during the encounter.
“We’ll go around the table here” but “we can’t have a deposition,” said Mr. Dougherty, angrily.
Ms. Oakley said she was sorry Mr. Dougherty had taken that attitude.
“I thought it was handled perfectly fine,” Mr. Dougherty responded.
The rest of the board agreed.
Mr. Shepherd said he was “absolutely confident” the commissioner’s decision that no racism was involved is the right one.
Chief Read said his organization examines every incident to see ways to improve.
Ms. Oakley said she was sure the department did, but believed she had the right to ask questions “without people getting really defensive and putting more in it than there actually is.”
Mr. Dougherty, laughing, said, “It’s the pot calling the kettle black.”
When issues arise, Ms. Oakley said, it should be spoken about in public forums, and not “just talked about over the back fence. That’s what I was attempting to do.”