The young East Hampton Town police force is about to get a young new chief at the end of this year, and, according to the outgoing chief, Edward Ecker, “We’re not going to miss a beat.”
The East Hampton Town Board voted unanimously on Oct. 1 to promote Capt. Michael D. Sarlo, 43, to the top slot. The current and future chiefs sat down for a joint interview on Monday. “It’s going to be a smooth transition,” Chief Ecker said. “He has got a lot of ideas, fresh ideas,” he said about his right-hand man, who was promoted to captain, the second highest rank in the force, in 2009. “He is the right person for a young department to bring along.”
The force has become much younger in recent years. “A lot of it was timing,” the chief-to-be explained. “In 1985, there were 10 officers hired together,” he said. Twenty years later, those officers reached a point at which many move on.
“Between 2004 and 2006 we had a dozen or more officers retire. . . . At about the same time, we grew the force by two or three officers. We went from having a department with largely senior officers with 18 to 20 years on them, to a younger department with two or three years of experience on them.”
The change to a younger force is particularly noticeable at the Police Benevolent Association’s annual Christmas children’s party. “There are now so many children under 3 years old,” Captain Sarlo said, noting the stress young officers face with a tough job, a grueling schedule, and a young family. He and his wife, Paula, an interior designer, have two children, Daniel, 10, and Melina, 7. Both attend the Springs School.
Captain Sarlo grew up in East Hampton. His father, Chris Sarlo, was the longtime principal of East Hampton High School, where Captain Sarlo was a student at a time when many of the officers currently on the force, like Chris Anderson, now the department’s detective lieutenant, were there.
Being a cop was something he wanted to do from a young age. “My uncle Danny was an N.Y.P.D. detective,” he said. He recalled stories his uncle would regale him and his brothers with. Captain Sarlo’s older brother, Kevin, preceded him on the East Hampton force, rising eventually to the rank of captain. Now retired, he had encouraged his brother to take the Civil Service test, a requirement for police work, when he was still in college.
The chief-to-be graduated from Maryland University in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in speech communication. He then dabbled in several possible careers and worked on Wall Street for a short time. But when a position on the force opened in 1995, he applied and was accepted. He went to the Suffolk County Police Academy in Brentwood with another future officer, Ryan Lynch, who became a close friend. When Mr. Lynch died of esophageal cancer in 2005, it was a stunning loss to the force, and to Captain Sarlo personally.
Captain Sarlo’s rise through the ranks has been rapid. In April 2002, he was promoted to sergeant in the patrol division. In 2004, he was named East Hampton local precinct commander. An important step followed when he became the department’s accreditation manager. The job, which opened Captain Sarlo’s eyes to the administrative nuances required of a police department, involved working with the state Department of Criminal Justice Services during an intense review covering everything from how arrests are handled to paperwork. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 2005.
One of the biggest hurdles the new chief will have is the summer season. “Forty-five percent of our calls come between Memorial and Labor Days,” Chief Ecker said. The challenge is to have enough manpower on the streets in, say, Montauk on a Saturday night in July without burning through the budget needed to run the force the rest of the year.
“We found it is more fiscally sound to spend some overtime than to try and get five or six more people on the police force,” Chief Ecker said.
At the same time, the force is always looking for young officers to fill in for a year or two during the season, before they get full-time jobs.
Captain Sarlo is excited about the future, but mindful of the challenges ahead. Looking ahead, he discussed developing what he called the well-rounded police officer. “We ask them to do special tasks. There is not much specialization in a small department, so we ask our guys to be jack of all trades. To be good investigators, to be good highway patrol officers, to be good mediators. It is a continuing learning experience throughout your career.”
“The officers roll out on the street, and they see the worst of people every day,” he said. “Police work is terribly stressful. One of the initiatives I’d like to try to work toward is having some sort of health and wellness program, whether that is voluntary or we work through our insurance carrier. It’s been a big part of my career, maintaining physical fitness.”
Another goal, he said, is diversity. “We’d like to focus more on broadening our demographics. We need Spanish-speaking officers. We feel it is important. We want to represent our community.”
How to be fiscally prudent, while making necessary changes in technology and manpower, is among other challenges. A significant change on the near horizon is the addition of dashboard video cameras in patrol cars to record all stops. “It looks like we’ve got capital funding to put that project in place,” Captain Sarlo said. “We are working through the bids, and we hope to have that up and running in early 2014.”
Other technological advances that appear to have funding is a new crime scene van and two new speed-capturing devices. These will record not only speed but the volume of traffic in busy intersections.
The precise schedule uniformed officers keep was a topic that neither man wanted to discuss because of the ongoing negotiations between the town and the P.B.A. The department has been working without a contract since the beginning of the year, although the chief of police is covered by a separate contract.
Uniformed officers now rotate through a schedule that is designed to make sure there are officers available 24 hours a day. It means first working the morning shift, then the afternoon shift, and finally the overnight shift, all in a two-week period, with off-days peppered in. It is a bone of contention for many on the force.
From the beginning, Captain Sarlo said Chief Ecker acted as a mentor, not only for him but for the entire force. The captain stressed that he would continue Chief Ecker’s open door policy for the public. If someone has something to say, the chief is there to listen, he said.
Speaking when the older man left the room, Captain Sarlo said, “His commitment to this community is unparalleled. One of his uncles was a priest. He would say, you can be tough but don’t be mean. Chief Ecker has passed that along to all of us. You have to be a tough cop, you have to take charge of situations. But deal with people fairly, treat them with respect.”