Suffolk Hispanic liaison officer earning praise

May 3, Suffolk County police officer Lola Quesada, May 3, Suffolk County police officer Lola Quesada, the liaison to the Hispanic Community in her patrol car on her way to South side hospital in Bay shore to check on a patient. Photo Credit: Photo by Pablo Corradi

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The caller speaks in a quiet voice, almost a whisper.

"I need help with my son," she says in Spanish. "He's in trouble."

Suffolk County Police Officer Lola Quesada hunches over her cell phone to hear better. "He's 13," the woman continues. "There's something going on with a gang."

Quesada tells the caller to meet her in Brentwood in an hour. It's a Friday, and Quesada is glad she isn't locked into any appointments. "You can't make too many plans on this job," she says.

The job is unlike any other in the county: Quesada is the police department's Hispanic liaison, a position to which she was assigned weeks after the November 2008 killing of Marcelo Lucero, the emigrant from Ecuador who was stabbed to death in Patchogue after being surrounded by a group of teenagers. That killing led to complaints from immigrant advocates that the police had often ignored Spanish-speakers across the county.

Quesada, 48, has taken what was essentially a community relations outreach post and turned it into a countywide beat cop. Alternating between English and Spanish, she plays the roles of investigator, social worker, parenting coach and educational consultant. It's similar to her previous career as a nurse, except that she carries a badge, handcuffs and a Glock pistol.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In 18 months as the liaison, Quesada has run workshops for victims of domestic violence and seminars on gang awareness, and she's brought in the state and federal labor departments to Huntington Station to explain day laborers' rights. She is especially proud of her work mediating between Hispanic and non-Hispanic residents of Patchogue.

In a typical day, Quesada goes to First District Court in Central Islip to help a woman get a protective order against an abusive husband, and she talks to several parents worried their children are on the verge of committing crimes. For the last couple of weeks, she has tried to untangle the conflicting stories of several mothers who say their teenage sons have been threatened or beaten by boys associated with the MS-13 gang.

That case started with the call from the mother of the 13-year-old boy. It took Quesada to four immigrant families' homes in Brentwood, along with a middle school and a high school.

At one point, she sat at the kitchen table in the family's house and confronted the 13-year-old. He had been suspended from school for two days for fighting. Quesada began with a soft touch, speaking more as the mother of three than as a cop.

$relatedItem.caption

 

Tough love

She asked what the boy wanted to do when he grew up. He said he'd like to be a lawyer.

"If you get in trouble with the police, it's on your record, and then you're never going to be a lawyer," she said.

She told the boy and his family that she, too, was born in Latin America - in Ecuador. "We have an opportunity here, in this country, to succeed," Quesada said in a strict tone. "I don't want you to end up working at McDonald's, not that there's anything wrong with working at McDonald's. But I think your parents expect more."

The parents thanked Quesada repeatedly. So did Mae Lane, principal of North Middle School in Brentwood, who praised Quesada's ability to connect with struggling students.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Quesada gets that reaction often. "Everyone trusts Lola," said Sister Kathleen Carberry, director of the Learning Connection, an educational program for immigrant women run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood. "She's like an old friend around here."

Quesada was especially visible as the community confronted tensions after the Lucero killing. Manuel Sanzone, then principal of Patchogue-Medford High School, recalled summoning Quesada several times to mediate between students who called each other names or got into fights. When Quesada met with the teenagers and their parents, she started by drawing everyone out, listening and then using compassion and humor to ease tensions, Sanzone said.

As the son and grandson of Italian immigrants, he was glad to see Quesada tell students not to tolerate ethnic slurs. "She has a great way of letting people understand their differences, then move forward so they can go to school together, or play sports together, or live together,"Sanzone said.

"The only problem with Lola is she's not five people," said Legis. Vivian Viloria-Fisher (D-East Setauket). She noted that she invited Quesada to a Spanish-language Mass at a Catholic church in Port Jefferson on Valentine's Day this year to meet Hispanics. Quesada left her husband for several hours to attend.

 

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Behind the scenes

Quesada helps behind the scenes. Earlier this year, out of the view of the media, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy attended a meeting at the Marcelo Lucero Foundation, with Hispanic advocates, with Quesada translating for him. Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri Jr., another participant, credited her easygoing manner with calming the tension in the room.

Quesada has a special connection to the immigrant community: She was an 8-year-old when she came from Ecuador to the United States with her parents, brother and sister. Her family immigrated legally; her father had worked as a language teacher at the U.S. Embassy in Quito. Quesada studied fashion design and then nursing, and then decided she wanted to be a police officer. At age 40, she entered the police academy.

She spent her first six years on patrol, mostly in the Third Precinct, which covers Islip Town. She frequently volunteered to go to meetings with community members. "She has a real positive attitude toward the job and the public," said Suffolk's assistant chief of patrol, Pat Cuff, who first met Quesada when he taught her in the academy.

Quesada's disarming way of talking to people in trouble showed last week as she sat with one boy after another whom she suspected of gang involvement. At the end of the conversations, she announced that she would make a surprise visit to their classrooms in the next few weeks to make sure they were going to school and behaving well.

"You'll say, 'Hi, Officer Quesada,' " she said, "and then you can make it a good visit, or you can make it bad."

"I'd be so embarrassed," the 13-year-old said, then added, "but it will be a good visit."

You also may be interested in: