Suffolk County police have obtained an unedited video file that could help determine whether detectives failed to provide appropriate assistance to a Spanish-speaking family when immigrant parents asked for help in investigating their teenage daughter’s disappearance.
But the department said it would not make the conclusions of its internal investigation known to the public, even though several Suffolk legislators expressed concerns at a public safety committee meeting more than six months ago about how the family was treated. A state senator formerly on the committee said Tuesday that Suffolk police should report back to the panel with its findings.
The family in the video had gone to the Third Precinct in Bay Shore in March 2016 shortly after their daughter returned from being missing for three days. The parents alleged that the young woman was interrogated harshly and that they never received the Spanish-language assistance they needed.
The questioning was captured in a video clip that the investigative news organization ProPublica posted on social media Sept. 24, 2018. It was in connection with an article that raised questions about the department’s response to reports of missing Latino children at a time when a murder spree, later attributed to the MS-13 street gang, was developing in the region. Newsday partnered with ProPublica and in September published a version of the related story.
"We made an immediate commitment to look into the investigation as soon as we saw the video."Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart
Suffolk police officials had said that the clip was a piece of a larger video that its investigators wanted to review before reaching a conclusion.
After Newsday made inquiries into the matter with the department, immigrant advocates and the affected family, the organization Make the Road New York, which has been representing the family, sent the video electronically to police on April 12.
The parents surreptitiously recorded the video when they went to the precinct with their daughter, then 15 and a high school freshman, after she called them on the third day of her disappearance to say she had been left near the Brentwood railroad tracks. The parents later gave it to the advocacy group.
“When this family attempted to file a police report in a moment of crisis, instead of being offered an interpreter, their civil rights were egregiously violated," Amy Taylor, co-director of the organization’s legal department, said in a statement.
A Suffolk police spokeswoman, Dawn Schob, confirmed the department received the video on April 12 but said she could not discuss the source or the video’s content.
The recording is “under review and it will be part of the investigation,” Schob said.
In earlier comments, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said the department remained committed to investigating the family’s allegations.
“We made an immediate commitment to look into the investigation as soon as we saw the video,” Hart said. “We’ll continue to attempt a full and fair investigation, both for the community as well as for the detectives involved in the case.”
"How about instead of going back with your parents we bring you to the Nassau County Juvenile Facility — the jail?"Suffolk County Police Det. Luis Perez
The recording shows the father requesting, in halting English, an interpreter from Det. Michael Cammarata so that he could discuss his daughter’s disappearance with the detective because the parents feared she may have been held by a gang member.
The video shows the detective continuing to speak in English with the teenager as she related that she had been threatened in text messages. In the video, the father grows more anxious and, speaking in Spanish, asks someone off camera to pass him a telephone, so that he could call a community advocate. After he makes that call, the detective tells them that he will “use an officer” to interpret.
Text from ProPublica on a muted part of the video indicates that nine minutes of questioning passed until Det. Luis Perez, who speaks Spanish, joined them for the interview. Perez directed the girl to continue speaking English and he joined Cammarata in questioning her. Perez accused her of lying and threatened to place her in juvenile detention: “How about instead of going back with your parents we bring you to the Nassau County Juvenile Facility — the jail?” Perez is heard asking her.
Cammarata echoed the threat: “I told you that.”
The girl went missing a second time later that year and, after returning safely on the same day, she told her parents that she had been picked up from school and taken to a house where MS-13 gang members were hanging out. She did not disclose any other details about what happened in those two instances.
Members of the county legislature’s Public Safety Committee voiced concern about the video at their Sept. 27 meeting after residents and activists raised the matter and asked questions.
State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), then a county legislator and the committee chairwoman, referred to “an investigation going on,” though Suffolk police said in a statement that the Internal Affairs probe started the following day at the behest of Hart.
At the time, Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said she was “very, very disturbed” by what appeared to have happened, and Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac) said the video was “of real concern.” She called for a “professional and thorough investigation that would include the review of documents, the notes of the detectives, the … logbooks of the folks sitting outside the room.”
The legislature’s Public Safety Committee has not addressed the matter since October, when it was raised during a public comment session, but Martinez said Tuesday that police should report back to legislators at the end of the investigation.
"I think at least the committee is due for a response," said Martinez. "This started under my leadership as chair and I would hope that the committee continues to be at the forefront of this issue, not just for this family, but for other families."
The chief of staff for the current chairman, Legis. Tom Donnelly (D-Deer Park), said he had not been involved in that discussion and referred questions to the committee vice chairman, Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue). Calarco said through his chief of staff that he had no comment.
Neither Fleming nor Hahn responded to requests for comment.
Suffolk police said the investigation was requested by Hart “to ensure protocol was followed” and, because no formal complaint was filed, the findings and possible sanctions would not be disclosed. Complainants are usually notified of a case’s disposition.
Suffolk police policy is that if an allegation of officer misconduct is substantiated “the target officer will be subject to discipline commensurate with the offense,” the department said in a written statement. The outcomes could include extra training, an official reprimand or forfeiture of time and pay.
"For them to say we didn’t provide anybody who spoke Spanish is a fabrication.”Suffolk County Det. Luis Perez
Complaints can also be deemed unsubstantiated, the department said, for “lack of evidence proving or disproving the alleged misconduct.”
Suffolk police did not name which officers are under investigation. Both detectives in the video were reached by Newsday and said they are not able to comment on the investigation because of department rules.
Perez did say that he has often served as an interpreter, as needed: “I am a bilingual police officer. I’ve worked on many cases where I was called in to speak Spanish … and, you know, for them to say we didn’t provide anybody who spoke Spanish is a fabrication.”
The mother of the teen in the video spoke to Newsday on condition of anonymity because she and her husband are concerned for their daughter’s safety. At the request of Internal Affairs investigators, the family met with detectives about two months ago, accompanied by a representative from Make the Road, but the mother later said they have lost faith Suffolk police will help them.
She said the man who held their daughter was never prosecuted while her daughter, now 18, was treated as a suspect.
“At no point did they help us,” the mother, 41, said in Spanish. “I tell people that this happened to us probably because we are immigrants and we are Hispanic … All I am asking of them is that they try to do better in helping immigrant people.”
Advocates working with Suffolk’s Latino immigrants see the video as symptomatic of bigger challenges in police relations with the growing community. The department has been monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of a 2014 settlement agreement to improve policing and outreach in the Latino immigrant community.
In its most recent report, issued in October, the Justice Department found the police internal investigation procedure to be in substantial compliance with the settlement agreement. That came after years of criticism in previous reports that lengthy and opaque investigations were eroding community trust.
“The bottom line is the way that that girl was treated was completely inappropriate and disrespectful.”Cheryl Keshner, coordinator of the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition
Hart said the department is committed to also investigate “the underlying allegations” in the teenage girl’s missing case while continuing efforts to improve policing and communication with the Hispanic community.
She said the department has increased efforts to recruit Spanish-speaking officers, hired bilingual liaisons and recently started offering Spanish-language classes twice a week for a 20-person officer class and others who connect through videoconferencing.
“This is one incident that we take very seriously, obviously,” Hart said, “but we are doing a myriad of different initiatives to make sure that we are building the trust in the community.”
Immigrant advocates said progress has been made in community outreach but that they are not convinced the department’s culture has changed enough to bridge a gap of trust.
“It’s not just a matter of the language,” said Cheryl Keshner, coordinator of the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition, a group that seeks better interpreter and translation services from local governments. “The bottom line is the way that that girl was treated was completely inappropriate and disrespectful.”