Latino advocates Wednesday held a news conference demanding that Suffolk County police be more responsive to the community.
They did so at a police precinct located in the heart of Long Island's largest and oldest collection of Latino communities. El Salvador has a consulate in the precinct; and Long Island's lone Latino representative in the state Legislature, Phil Ramos, lives there.
Back in the 1930s, Puerto Ricans, savoring the suburban lifestyle, settled in Brentwood in droves. Followed, over later decades, by emigrants from Chile, El Salvador and a host of other South and Central American countries who settled in neighboring Central Islip and in Bay Shore, where the Third Precinct station house is located.
The precinct serves other immigrants as well. At PRONTO, a community outreach center, ESL classes attract students whose native languages include Spanish, Farsi, Russian, Chinese and Polish.
If Suffolk County can't get community outreach right in this mosaic of a district, where can it?
Wednesday, residents at a restaurant and a laundry near the station house had praise for officers in the community. "The ones I see do OK," said a man who would identify himself only as Raoul.
But the emphasis was on policy, not officers during Wednesday's news conference. It was the first called in Suffolk by the Long Island Immigrant Alliance and other advocates since a U.S. Justice Department letter detailed suggested department reforms. "The key issues in this precinct are not hate crimes," Ramos said. "It's the kind of quality-of-life issues, like gangs, cleaning up graffiti, answering domestic violence calls, that police mostly deal with."
That job, Ramos and others said, is key to protecting individuals and, by extension, the community. If police and residents are not comfortable with each other, the job cannot get done.
Tatiana Grez, an emigrant from Chile, said she's lived in the district for 12 years. She said she was frustrated because police reports often did not reflect important points she was trying to make. "I don't have the right words," she said. "I don't think they don't care, I think they don't get what I am trying to say."
The justice department letter detailed recommendations that would address Grez's concerns: Hiring more officers with language skills and making translation services more available. They also recommended improving community relations and retooling internal communications so everyone, from top brass to patrol officer, knows what needs to be done.
Residents and some organization representatives were still milling around after the news conference when Richard Dormer, Suffolk's police commissioner, issued a news release. "We strongly refute the claims being made at a press conference being held outside the Third Precinct this morning asserting that the Suffolk County Police Department is somehow dragging its feet in providing programs . . . to better communicate with members of the public," it said.
"We're not even gone from here and the department is already being defensive," said Luis Valenzuela, head of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. "This is not a way to build a relationship," he said.