By Tessa Raebeck
The Sagaponack Village Board held a special meeting Saturday morning to again discuss whether or not to form its own police department, a decision the board has committed to making by Monday September 16.
With the board, several police officers and representatives from the Town of Southampton in attendance, residents of Sagaponack were invited to the second and final community meeting to share their opinions on the debate.
Non-residents, including at least one Southampton resident opposed to the idea, were barred from speaking.
Community members in favor of the resolution raised concerns over what they say are lengthy response times by the Southampton Town Police Department, which is currently responsible for policing the small village of 314 permanent residents, as well as widespread speeding on Sagaponack’s roads in spite of the hamlet’s low speed limits. Often ranked as one of the country’s most expensive zip codes, Sagaponack has been attempting to increase town police presence within its borders since as early as 2010, according to board members.
“As far as the speeding goes,” said David Reynolds, a resident of Daniel’s Lane. “It seems to me — certainly on Daniel’s — some of my neighbors like to open up their Maseratis, put them in full throttle and weave around the bicycles.”
“The speeding has to stop,” agreed his wife, Suzanne Reynolds. “We’re in a situation where we need more surveillance no matter what.”
Longtime resident Tinka Topping shared a story of her grandchild accidentally dialing 911 and a police officer not arriving until over an hour had passed.
“It turned out it was mischief, but if it had been me on the floor calling 911 and a policeman hadn’t come for an hour…that’s to me unacceptable wherever it is if you call 911,” she said.
Other residents were wary of establishing a village department, a response many considered to be extreme and financially shortsighted.
“I am totally against having our own police department,” said David Schoenthal. “Sagaponack is going to turn into a speed trap. The police officers are going to have nothing to do except stop people from speeding. I don’t really want to see a policeman on every single corner in Sagaponack, it’s a very small community.”
The board has the capacity to draft a resolution to create a police department without a popular, community-wide vote; but several board members have yet to voice a firm stance on the issue.
“We still have serious reservations about doing that,” said Donald Louchheim, the village mayor. “Which is why we are having this meeting and why we are bringing it to the public.”
Sagaponack currently contributes about $2.3 million in taxes to the Southampton police district, accounting for some 10 percent of the department’s total operating budget. Since talks of creating a separate department in Sagaponack have begun, Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst has pledged to work with the hamlet in efforts to increase police presence there.
At present, the town has dedicated an officer to patrol Sagaponack 16 hours a day between May and September, from 8 a.m. to midnight. The town, wary of the budget constraints it would face if it lost the tax revenue from Sagaponack, has offered to increase this coverage to a year-round patrol. After midnight, Sagaponack would be covered by the Bridgehampton sector of the town police. During the summer, there would be an officer assigned to Sagaponack 24 hours a day.
Suzanne Reynolds and several other residents voiced concern that Southampton Town police are unfamiliar with the streets, codes and noise ordinances of Sagaponack.
“The officers assigned here,” replied Louchheim, referring to the proposed village department, “the emphasis to them by their superiors would be community policing, knowing the community, becoming familiar with the village codes.”
“We need community police,” agreed William Barbour, a member of the village board. “We need visibility, we need accountability… We need to have a police officer come to your house quickly when you need it. We need to have the visibility of police officers on the road so the speeders do slow down. It’s a matter of safety and quality of life for this wonderful community.”
While many called for a more personalized police force, others recognized Sagaponack’s connection to the wider community.
“I’m very concerned about the observation of isolating ourselves and taking ourselves out of the equation of all the activities of Southampton Town,” said Steve Gutman.
Of Hampton Library in Bridgehampton, he said, “we pay taxes which are disproportionate to the number of books we lend or the number of children we send, but it is a wonderful amenity. We use all the facilities of all the aspects of this area and I’m concerned about establishing something where we become in a sense…an elitist village.”
“The people in this village, we’re part of a bigger community, we live in the whole town,” agreed Bill Tillotsen. “I don’t want to see policing come in here, us taking out of the town budget money that at some point…if I want to go hiking in the Pine Barrens or somewhere else in the town, where I would feel unsafe.”
Tillotsen also questioned the capacity of future village leadership to keep the costs of the department under control, as did Parsonage Lane resident John Frawley.
Mayor Louchheim recommended to the board that if a department is established the village should pledge to disband the referendum if police taxes “ever rise to a point where they equal or exceed what we pay for town services.”
Several residents called on the village board to continue negotiations with Southampton Town.
“I would hope that we do not abandon those efforts in the name of trying to save some money here,” said Gutman.
“It’s not economics,” replied the mayor. “The only legitimate reason in my mind for us to develop a police department is if we feel we can better serve the community.”
Sporting a top hat decorated with the words “No Sagg Cops,” Tillotsen, the village’s former mayor, said, “We’re not Detroit. We don’t have a real crime problem.”