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After Newsday findings, Curran creates panel on police hiring, Suffolk reviewing its process

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Thursday announced

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran on Thursday announced a “Police Diversity Committee.” The committee will review police hiring and look at recruitment, testing and training. Newsday's Cecilia Dowd reports on this story, which is in response to a Newsday investigation on diversity in police hiring. Credit: Howard Schnapp; File footage

This story was reported by Jim Baumbach, Robert Brodsky, Paul LaRocco and David M. Schwartz. It was written by Schwartz.

Responding to the findings of a Newsday investigation, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said Thursday that a newly established committee will study how the county hires police officers with the goal of increasing minority representation on Nassau’s overwhelmingly white force.

"Newsday’s investigation highlighted a genuine challenge," Curran said, adding "It’s essential that our law enforcement reflects the community. Having a police department that looks like the community is key to building that trust."

She announced her plan to form the committee at a news conference that had been scheduled to mark the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder with the revelation that the county had purchased 2,500 body-worn cameras for Nassau’s department.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone did not respond to requests for comment about Newsday’s "Barriers to Badges" investigation.

In a statement, Suffolk acting Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron wrote that the department is evaluating each step of its hiring process.

"We are committed to ensuring that our police department is reflective of the communities that it serves," he wrote. "Each step in the hiring process should be fair for all candidates who wish to join our department, and we are examining each step in this process and have made changes that we believe will improve the outcome."

KEY FINDINGS FROM NEWSDAY’S INVESTIGATION

6,539 Black applicants sought jobs with the Nassau and Suffolk departments over the last nine years. Only 67 won positions. Both police departments remain approximately 85% white four decades after the counties entered federal consent decrees aimed at increasing minority representation.

SUFFOLK

  • 1,419 Black applicants sought to join Suffolk’s force based on a 2015 test; 16 won jobs.

  • 3,564 Hispanic applicants sought to join based on the same test; 45 won jobs.

  • The department roster included 61 Black officers this spring – exactly the number two decades ago.

  • Suffolk’s present hiring program, based on a 2019 test, has enlisted 94 recruits: 80% white. 

  • The rates at which Blacks, Hispanics and Asians aced the written test compared to whites in 2015 and 2019 violated a federal standard used to measure potential evidence of discrimination.

  • Suffolk’s physical fitness exam eliminated Black candidates 1.6 times more often than other applicants.

  • Suffolk’s psychological evaluations eliminated 43% of Blacks and 33% of Hispanics compared with 16% of whites. 

  • The department hired 505 police officers. A pool of applicants that started at 66% white finished as a cadre of officers that was 87% white.

NASSAU

  • 2,508 Black applicants sought to join Nassau’s force based on a 2012 test; 36 won jobs.

  • 3,389 Hispanic applicants sought to join; 89 won jobs.

  • The department roster included 103 Black officers this spring – seven fewer than two decades ago.

  • Nassau’s present hiring program, based on a 2018 test, has enlisted 281 recruits:  87% white.

  • After the 2012 test, the civil service department called top scorers in descending order – whites 33% more frequently than Black applicants and 12% more often than Hispanic candidates.

  • Nassau’s physical fitness exam eliminated Black candidates 2.1 times more often than white applicants and Hispanic candidates 1.3 times more frequently.

  • Background investigations knocked out Black candidates 2.6 times the rate of white applicants and Hispanic candidates 1.3 times more frequently.

  • The department hired 927 police officers: A pool of applicants that started at 56% white finished as a cadre of officers that was 84% white.

Based on a review of more than 70,000 hiring records spanning nine years, the investigation revealed that joining the two county forces had been more than three times tougher for Black applicants than for white candidates and twice as tough for Hispanic job seekers.

A total of 6,539 Black applicants had tried to join the two departments — with only 67 winning jobs.

"We weren’t aware of those numbers," said Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), Nassau’s legislative minority leader. "I had no stretch of imagination, it was that bad."

"Whatever the reason is, it’s shocking that there seems to be some systemic flaw that causes this discrepancy," said Fred Klein, a Hofstra University Law School professor and former Nassau prosecutor who served on the county’s police reform committee.

"I don’t see any evidence of intentional discrimination," Klein said. "It may be the process or the exam, but obviously it’s a problem."

Shanequa Levin, a leader of LI United to Transform Policing and Community Safety, said: "We’ve known something is flawed in the process of hiring Black officers for years. We don’t see Black officers patrolling our communities, we don’t see them at our events, don’t see them when we’re pulled over. When you see results like this, you have to really look into the system we have."

Police hiring in both counties is governed by Civil Service procedures and consent decrees that grant the U.S. Justice Department power to oversee their employment practices. The decrees were put in place four decades ago in the hope of diversifying the forces. Both remain approximately 85% white.

The process in each county includes written exams and physical fitness, psychological and medical testing, as well as background investigations. Each step of the process in one or both counties eliminated candidates of color from consideration more frequently than white applicants. Employment experts said that the disparities showed evidence of potential unlawful discrimination.

Physical fitness tests, for example, disqualified Black and Hispanic applicants in Nassau at 2.1 times and 1.3 times the rate they dropped white applicants. In Suffolk, Blacks were dropped 1.6 times more often than other candidates.

Both counties use the same test — a regimen that demands performing situps and pushups in precise forms.

"You're telling me that a young man or young woman who's excelled in everything in their entire life gets bounced because they don't touch their chest to a sponge" while doing a pushup, said Hempstead civil rights attorney Frederick K. Brewington.

"I think if you're testing someone for physical fitness, you should be testing their overall fitness, not whether they can be trained or coached to do specific exercises," said Nassau Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park).

The Nassau County Police Diversity Committee announced Thursday will be headed by First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury Bishop Lionel Harvey, who serves as deputy director for the county’s Office of Minority Affairs.

The committee will consider changing the Civil Service process, increasing recruitment, improving mentoring for minority job candidates and seeking release from Justice Department oversight.

Discussing Newsday’s overall findings, Suffolk Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) said: "We want to ensure the police department looks like the community it serves. And we haven't met that goal, even though we have strived to for a very long time."

He said that Suffolk’s police reform task force had not disbanded after issuing recommendations and should take up police hiring as an issue.

Suffolk legislative Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) emphasized that the Department of Justice has been monitoring the county’s hiring.

"If there's a problem with the hiring, or the lack of minorities, or they're saying that there is systemic racism in the hiring process, somebody should call the Justice Department and say, ‘What are you doing?’" McCaffrey said. "I don't think it's fair to be going to Suffolk County and make it look like we have systemic racism built into our hiring process, when in fact, the ones who control that is the Department of Justice. And they've overseen it for many, many years."

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department did not return a message seeking comment.

Theresa Sanders, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Long Island, said:

"When you have thousands of people like that even dropping out, it’s no way it’s the people’s fault. There has to be something wrong with the process. The power of Newsday reporting this in the fashion that you did — based on data, so it's not anybody's opinion — it's not hypothetical."

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