By Annette Hinkle
Chief Michael Sarlo, the new head of the East Hampton Town Police Department who began his job on January 1, talks about what’s ahead in the coming year.
How many officers are currently on the force?
We are 62 sworn officers. We actually grew in the early 2000s, we went from 50 to 55 or so. In the mid 2000s, we came up to our current level — and we did lose one officer in the budget, so we’re down to 62 this year.
Is budgeting one of the big issues you have to deal with as chief of the department?
That is probably one of the biggest challenges in municipal policing. We are faced with the 2 percent tax cap. During our budget process it was announced it would be tied to the annual cost of living which is 1.66 percent, so it’s even less. increases in pension funding and health insurance are making it more and more difficult to meet the challenges of budgeting in the police department.
Personnel is a big number, but to keep a department our size running with a headquarters, two satellite precincts, six to eight officers out on patrol at any one time, garages, contracts for services for technology, the heat — those things are not held to 2 percent and are the outside costs of doing business — we need to look at renegotiation of contracts or shared services. It’s a big job.
Are you prepared to take on such a big job?
Chief [Ed] Ecker used me as a resource in the last several years, so I was constantly researching grant funding. The town board has been great in realizing our long term needs in technology and infrastructure and they have found capital funding for us and allowed for long term bonds to meet our needs.
What are some of those needs?
We had an upgrade in the computer system last year. This year we put the dash cams in the patrol cars. We have a 20 year old command van, which we’ll get replaced. Our officers do accident reconstruction on site and the van will allow us to have a mobile command post where they’ll have access to their computers. It will also be used for special events like fireworks and parades. When you have a detail of 12 to 20 officers, it’s nice to have a home base in the field. We’re hoping to have that by spring.
You’ve been with the department since 1995. When it comes to policing East Hampton, what changes have you seen in the last 19 years?
We used to have much more of a small town feel. Everyone knew each other and the police department was able to maintain the community policing feel in how we did business. The make up of the community has changed greatly. We’re a much more diverse community than we were 19 years ago. All walks of life have come to call East Hampton home.
We’ve also experienced a dramatic increase in calls for service over the last 10 years. We know how busy it is here between Memorial and Labor Day, but that dramatic drop off isn’t there anymore. We stay busy through the calendar year.
We have issues with large crowds during the summer, nightclubs, people on beaches and streets, volume is a big challenge in summer. But year round the community has grown and the level of activity has grown. The advent of cell phones in the ‘90s means people call police for far more than they used to. People want to document everything for the police — civil suits, a lot of issues like landlord/tenant, custody or business disputes. These are situations where we wouldn’t have been involved in the past. Not much gets missed. It can be a big positive in that we have the eyes and ears of the public helping, but it’s also quite a bit of running around for things we should not be policing.
A lot of police reports in the summer are related to incidents in Montauk. How do you police an area so far removed from the rest of East Hampton?
The police department always has a commanding officer in Montauk — Lt. Christopher Hatch is our commanding officer presently. Because of geographics and the fact it has its own issues, we always felt a member of our senior staff should be available there for the public. We also have to listen to the concerns of business owners, look at public safety issues and form a plan to address those issues.
Montauk in general has always had a diverse summer population between the fishing community, the Irish kids working at hotels and restaurants and the up islanders. It’s become so popular now with the hipsters, the sheer volume of people looking to go to restaurants and bars and hit the beaches has grown. People in rental houses west of here will come in party vans. It’s a boon for businesses, but can be a bit of a burden on local citizens. We try to strike a balance where we police with fairness as long as businesses are operating under the law.
The lieutenant and myself make ourselves available. We are hands on and interactive. Communication is key.
What are some of your big goals for the department in 2014?
We set our goals and objectives each year, and we took a firmer stance on distracted driving last year. Two years ago, we were dealing with serious accidents and fatalities. While overall those numbers did not spike, we seem to run steady with the same numbers from year to year. We see the issues with texting and distracted driving which the state has upped the ante on. That’s a goal from last year we want to continue this year.
It’s difficult for our officers in all honesty. We’re so busy out handling routine calls, to make a concerted effort to pull over minor violations is difficult. We’re trying to focus our efforts on areas where we feel can have an impact by using grant funding for focused policing.
With the transition at work, most of my goals revolve around internal changes for increased efficiency and workflow in the department, like going paperless and trying to make sure our reporting to state and the public is smooth, efficient and cost effective.
Communication is key, and I plan on initiating discussions with the press and the public where I relay what the department is seeking and the community can weigh in so we can better understand each other. As that saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
It sounds to me like you’re well prepared and ready to dive into your new job.
I’m very excited about the administration team. They are a good group of educated, hard working young officers I’ve come through the ranks with and they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.