Southampton Displays New Show of Force

Party-policing changes as terror tactics evolve
At Super Saturday in Bridgehampton, a benefit for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, Southampton Town police officers stood by with semiautomatic rifles. Carrie Ann Salvi

Children and parents probably did not expect to see police officers shouldering semiautomatic weapons as they arrived at the Children’s Museum of the East End’s annual family fair in Bridgehampton two weeks ago.

Such a show of force is commonplace at spots like Madison Square Garden, the Jones Beach amphitheater, Penn Station, and big airports, but an increased police presence this summer at large-scale events starting with the Hamptons Half-Marathon in Bridgehampton in the spring and most recently at the Watermill Center’s benefit on Saturday, is new on the South Fork.

It is part of a counterterrorism initiative brought to Southampton Town by its new police chief, Steven Skrynecki. With over 100 special events taking place from Sagaponack to Speonk — and many of them with high-price tickets and attracting celebrities and members of high society — he felt it was necessary to increase safety in light of acts of terrorism that have occurred elsewhere.

Some guests at the July 22 family fair, where two officers stood at the entrance and also walked around in the morning, complained to organizers that “it was really antithetical to promoting a family-friendly environment,” according to Steve Long, the executive director. Some children were frightened, he said. While the attendees still had fun, and no one that he knew of left because of the police presence, “It didn’t promote the sense of a family-friendly environment that we try so hard to promote.”

“We’ve been having this fair for years. I don’t know what precipitated, all of a sudden, that terrorism is really a concern, now more so than 12 months ago,” Mr. Long said. In the past, the Police Department had supplied two traffic control officers, and CMEE took care of its own security through a private firm.

Chief Skrynecki said there was no intelligence indicating that an act of terrorism would occur here, but he would rather be prepared.

“In my opinion, there’s no difference between an event that’s a large crowd of children and a large crowd of adults,” the chief said. “Regardless of their makeup in any way, a large crowd is potentially a target. We’ve seen this in San Bernardino . . . indoors in the Pulse nightclub . . . in Germany in a Christmas setting, in a festive setting . . . in Nice, France, which is a beachside resort not dissimilar to the Hamptons,” he said. “We would be foolish to try and suggest that it can’t happen here.”

The purpose of having officers with the semiautomatic rifles on display is twofold, he explained. He would rather the department anticipate a potential problem than simply respond to it, and he also hopes ready to take action would act as a deterrent.

These weapons are standard in patrol cars and have been for years, replacing the old 12-gauge shotguns, because of their range. The squad cars could easily be 100 yards away from where a threat is standing, the chief said. “That’s a 100-yard sprint in one direction and a 100-yard sprint back,” he said, adding that he would rather the officer be prepared to meet the threat.

Lara Sweeney, the development officer at CMEE, said in an email forwarded by Mr. Long that during the event, she spoke to the officers about how their presence was making some guests uncomfortable. They talked of the potential for a truck full of explosives being driven up the museum’s driveway, for example. “I responded that — with all due respect and we do appreciate all the police do for us — I don’t think two officers with machine guns standing by our driveway would prevent that kind of terrorism.”

The police presence does not come without an additional cost. As part of the permitting fee for a mass gathering event, Mr. Long said CMEE paid $944 this year, $719 more than last year for the same event.

“It was also a shame that $1,000 that I feel like we could be using for educational outreach, assisting families that couldn’t otherwise access our programming [is] instead . . . paying for two police officers to walk around with their machine guns.”

Mr. Long emphasized that the Southampton Town Police Department has been “amazing” in the past. He called Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman’s office after the event, but had not yet heard back.

Mr. Schneiderman said he would discuss the complaints with the police chief. “It’s worse to be criticized if there were a tragic event that we didn’t do enough to respond or prevent it,” he said. “We have a chief who is an expert in this area and who is highly regarded.” The new Southampton police chief is the former chief of the Nassau County Police Department.

“We are trying to balance this out in such a way that we have a visible deterrent, but we don’t want to interfere with activities or the enjoyment of the attendees,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

As a father himself, he said he understands the alarm the new initiative may cause, especially at a children’s event. He said it is possible that at certain events the officers could be less conspicuous and still accomplish the mission.

“I will certainly take into consideration any public feedback,” he said. “We’re still dialing in. This is a relatively new program here.”  

The feedback so far has been largely positive, according to the police chief and the supervisor. The chief said he was approached by a man who attended an L.G.B.T. event, who said he was nervous about going, but when he saw the officers, he felt safe.

His message to children or even adults who may be scared by the sight of the guns is: “That person is there to protect you. That person is not there to cause you fear.” He suggested parents talk to children about what they are seeing and that people of all ages recognize that “Nowadays, unfortunately, a mass gathering of any kind becomes a potential target.”