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The Shelter Island Police Department is golden: 50 years of community policing

In 1965, a 20-year-old Montclair Colony resident decided instead of paying 15 cents for ferry passage to Greenport, he’d take his date home in a motorboat he found tied up at the Bridge Street dock in Dering Harbor. A sign on the gunwales that he may not have seen in the dark, read “Shelter Island Police.”

Before Shelter Island established a Police Department in 1971, the Island was protected by constables — two or three full-timers who worked an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, and were on call overnight, were joined in the summer by a number of part-time constables.

The boat the man had highjacked belonged to the taxpayers, and when he returned it to Bridge Street, law enforcement was waiting. He paid a fine of $50 and got a suspended jail sentence of 30 days. The account in the Shelter Island Reporter made fun of his $50 fare when he could have paid a total 45 cents for a one way and a round-trip.

The early years of law enforcement on Shelter Island sound quaint and even charming by modern standards. Training was minimal, and the need to remedy that was at the heart of the decision to establish the Shelter Island Police Department in 1971, Chief James J. Read said. “Before the police academy, it was basically, here’s a badge and a gun and, ‘You’re going to be a policeman.’ People’s expectations of the police are very high now and we want to deliver on those expectations.” 

On September 13, the Police Department will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The establishment of a department meant training for officers, assurance of more fairness and transparency in hiring and employment practices, and New York State accreditation.

“Whether you call 911 in Albany or Long Island, the level of service and professionalism should be the same,” Chief Read said.

Howard Cronin served as chief of the Shelter Island Police Department from 1971 to 1976, followed by George Ferrer, who served as an officer for 25 years and was chief for 19. He died after a heart attack suffered while on duty in 1996. Chief Read joined the department in 1987, and in 1998 became chief, the longest-serving member of the force in its history at 34 years. He is already the longest-serving chief.

One thing has not changed over the years. “People call us for everything,” the chief said. “If you’re not sure who to call, here people will generally call the police. Our animal control officer was recently showing me a hawk that she pulled out of someone’s pool.”

James J. Read, new man on the force, in 1988. (Reporter file photo)

Regular readers of the police blotter — the most popular section of the Reporter — have followed with fascination police interventions with dogs, cats, bats, deer, raccoons, osprey and porgies, among other critters.

Muffin, a long-haired chihuahua currently living with Mary Fran Gleason, can attest to that. Muffin was the dog of Mary Fran’s mother, the late Marion Gleason, and when Officer Tom Cronin came by one day to ask how Muffin was doing, Mrs. Gleason wondered why.

Officer Cronin explained that he had fielded a call saying the dog was wandering around the neighborhood, so he opened the door to the house and put Muffin back inside before Mrs. Gleason became aware that the pooch had escaped, an example of the kind of community policing that can only happen in a small town.

Community policing — then and now.

Dick Jernick grew up on Shelter Island, and spent 23 and a half years as a Shelter Island policeman starting in 1968 before there was a police department. He retired in 1992. In those early days, police were caretakers of last resort, and their wives sometimes answered late night phone calls for assistance. 

But they did more than just take phone calls. “When I was a policeman, if we arrested someone who was a single parent, and there was no place for the kids to go, I had to bring home the children and my wife would take care of them,” Mr. Jernick said. “The state said if you’re going to keep bringing kids home, you have to get certified as foster parents.” 

So the Jernicks became foster parents, taking in a total of 12 babies from birth to six months, when they were adopted.

Best and worst

Police in a small town face a special set of circumstances. “One of the best things about being a policeman is living and working here, and one of the worst things is living and working here,” Chief Read said. “The community struggles with boundaries and respecting boundaries. When a policeman is out with their family, maybe that’s not the best time to come up and discuss your domestic dispute, or your issue with the Town.”

But when it comes to the relationship between the police and the school community, the chief said, the closeness is all good. Building the FIT center, the tennis courts and Fiske Field were all school projects completed with support and involvement from the Police Department.

Before COVID, an officer would regularly take a lunch break at the school. Officer Anthony Rando teaches a class at the school designed to promote drug resistance.

“With the school, we consciously work to foster a relationship,” Chief Read said. 

Changes in society, changes in the Police Department.

When the Department was formed, there was no such thing as school shootings, a tragic reality of school safety planning 50 years later. “If there is an incident at school, we don’t expect it to come, but we have to be prepared,” Chief Read said. “We are saddled with that. The other departments are half an hour away. We have to be able to respond.” 

The recent preparation for Hurricane Henri gave Chief Read, who is the emergency management coordinator for the Island, the chance to allow the local media more transparency in return for help in getting the word out about storm safety. “We gave the local media access to the decision-making,” Read said. “We brought them in as something new and they got the word out.”

One area where adaptation has been harder is in hiring police professionals who reflect the diversity of the community. “It’s a challenge for us, especially if we look at the key area — having non-white males and females in that role,” he said.

New police officers must be hired from a list of people who take the civil service exam offered every four years, and the list of Shelter Island residents taking the exam in the past has included mainly white males. “As we’ve evolved into a more Hispanic community, we’re trying to figure out ways we can get more people to take the exam, and we want to have a Spanish-speaking officer,” he said.

Woman Officer Taylor Rando will join the force this year, filling the spot opened up by the retirement of Sgt. Terrence LeGrady in January.

The anniversary celebration will be all about family, which in the case of the Shelter Island Police Department is family by blood as well as by long association. Chief Read’s son, James Read III is on the force, as are the sons, grandsons, cousins and brothers-in-law of retired officers.

The ceremony will bring the 30 or so full-time officers who served the Shelter Island Police Department, their families and survivors together to recognize their many years of multi-generational service to the community.

Chief Read will conduct a short ceremony, followed by a dinner (family-style of course) across the street at the Fire House.