Inesha Pendergrass, 31, of Brentwood, left, and her friend Alexandria...

Inesha Pendergrass, 31, of Brentwood, left, and her friend Alexandria Lyles, 20, of Deer Park, listen to Suffolk County Police officer Damon Barney at a job fair at the Wyandanch Public Library. (Jan. 15, 2014) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Nassau and Suffolk counties have made gains in the percentage of minorities on their police forces but still fall short of mirroring the general population, department statistics show.

Decades after the departments agreed to federal oversight in an effort to diversify amid allegations of discrimination, Nassau's force has grown from 8.3 percent minority in 1995 to 11.2 percent today. In Suffolk, 11.4 percent of the current force are minorities, department statistics show, up from around 7 percent in 1995.

Minorities make up nearly 37 percent of Nassau's overall population and nearly 30 percent of Suffolk's population.

Officials at both departments say they aggressively recruit in underrepresented communities and have increased the number of minority recruits taking the police exam. But the number of sworn officers who are minorities has remained stubbornly low because of the small number of officers who retire and the intense competition for those openings, officials said.

"The department's objective is to reflect the community it serves," said Nassau police's First Deputy Commissioner Thomas Krumpter. "We go through great pains and great expense to achieve that. . . . We've made huge inroads. But there's still work to do."

In Nassau, blacks compose 4.7 percent of the 2,205-member force, while Hispanics are 5.4 percent, up from 3 percent African-American and 3.3 percent Hispanic in 1995, the year that the earliest comprehensive statistics could be found. Asian/Pacific Islanders currently compose 0.8 percent of the force. Women represent 9.5 percent.

Suffolk's 2,352-member force currently is 7.7 percent Hispanic, 2.5 percent black and 1.1 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. In 1995, Hispanics were 4.8 percent and African-Americans were 2.2 percent of Suffolk.

Competitive exam

Nassau and Suffolk police officials say they've worked diligently on the issue, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on recruitment drives and other outreach, and working closely with the U.S. Department of Justice on the police entrance exam. But they say some larger factors have prevented better results.

Police at both departments are among the highest paid in New York State, and with crime relatively low, job turnover can take close to three decades. Nassau officers stay with the department an average of 28 years.

And the police exam, which is offered every four years, is extremely competitive, officials said. In 2011 -- when Suffolk last held an exam -- 24,571 people took the test. The department has hired 40 officers from that test. Of that, 20 percent were Hispanic and 2.5 percent were African-American.

"Between our salary and benefits, we're one of the most attractive police departments in the country," said Suffolk Deputy Police Chief Kevin Fallon, a department spokesman. "It makes it just extremely competitive to get on. . . . People want the job. It's a great job to have. It's a great career here. The problem is a lot more people want the job than we're hiring. . . . If we could have our police department reflect our make-up of our communities we serve, that would be ideal."

Police departments across the country in the past few decades have worked to diversify -- with mixed results, said Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Big-city departments with high turnover like the NYPD and the Los Angeles police have had some success, said Levin, while other departments have lagged behind due to a host of reasons, including a negative perception of police in some minority communities.

"It's crucially important," he said. "A diverse police force certainly serves a community better. It works on the ground in the sense that a department that is not diverse is not viewed with the same degree of credibility, particularly by the communities that are not represented."

Efforts to diversify in Suffolk paid off, officials said, after they created a Spanish-language component to the test. They hire at least 10 percent of those applicants, officials said.

Fallon acknowledged the department has more work to do with African-Americans, but pointed to Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, the first African-American woman to hold that rank in Suffolk, as a strong advocate for the department. Fallon said she's "going to be seen in the African-American community as someone who can excel and succeed in the world of law enforcement."

Lt. Robert Donahue, the commanding officer of Suffolk's recruitment effort, said the department has partnered with the NAACP, Latino groups and clergy to get the word out about the upcoming 2015 exam. The department also plans to increase its youth academy programs during the summer, which he said is part of its recruitment outreach.

In Nassau, where 16,948 applicants sat for the last test in 2012, the percentage of African-Americans taking the test increased from 10.8 percent in 2007 to 12.1 percent in 2012, according to department records. Hispanics increased from 14.9 percent to 16.5 percent. The percentage of women taking the test increased from 18.2 to 19.7. In preparation for the test, department officials attended more than 300 recruiting events, department records show.

Nassau police expects to hire 150 to 250 officers this year, Krumpter said, and about 600 over the next four years, a significant increase over past years. He said the department hopes to increase minorities through this anticipated hiring spree.

Suffolk police signed a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department in 1986 after the agency filed a class action lawsuit in 1983 charging that the county engaged in a pattern of discrimination against minorities. In Nassau, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit in 1977, charging the county discriminated against black, Hispanic and female candidates.

Monitoring remains in place

Both police departments agreed to adopt new tests for recruits and remain under federal monitoring.

Corey Pegues, a former NYPD deputy inspector who is a co-founder of the Long Island branch of the Law Enforcement Alliance and founding president of the Long Island chapter of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said the tests are still unfair to minorities. He said while the departments have ramped up recruiting, they should offer free exam prep courses.

In addition, several recent cases hamper both counties' efforts to recruit minority officers, he said.

The 2008 hate crime killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue increased tensions between Hispanics and police. Last month, Suffolk reached an agreement with the Justice Department to overhaul policing in minority communities.

In Nassau a black female police officer, Dolores Sharpe, a 19-year veteran who works in the Applicant Investigation Unit, said last month she was suspended without pay and forced to hand over her department-issued gun after being charged with misdemeanor resisting arrest. She said her arrest was due to racial prejudice. Her lawyer said this month that Sharpe was back on limited duty without her gun.

Nassau police have declined to comment on the case and said it is the subject of an internal affairs probe.

And in Suffolk, a pair of black officers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last year alleging the department failed to fully address allegations of discrimination and retaliation based on race. The department has said it does not comment on pending litigation.

"These cases don't do too much to help police in their recruitment of minorities," Pegues said. "Most of the disdain for police officers is in minority communities, let's be honest. If you go to affluent communities -- Dix Hills -- there aren't those issues. . . . I've seen the police hand out leaflets [at LIRR stations]. You're giving a leaflet to a mom or a dad who probably has a bad taste in their mouth about police. Most of them are putting it in the trash receptacle."

Recruiter: It's a good job

Suffolk Police Officer Damon Barney, one of two full-time officers assigned to the recruitment section of the department's Community Response Bureau, said minority recruits frequently ask him about his own experience as a black officer and the department's larger culture.

"People do have a lot of misconceptions," Barney said. "It's a good job. The pension is great. . . . You have a lot of opportunity to move around within the department."

Barney, who started at the department in 1996 after seven years as an officer with the NYC Department of Correction, said he understands that some may have concerns and questions.

"I had my apprehensions when I came on the job being a city guy," Barney said. "People said, 'You shouldn't take the job. They're racists.' That's gonna happen anywhere. Do we experience that out here? No. Can it happen? Again, it can happen anywhere. But I haven't experienced it. . . . It's an excellent job. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe it."

Barney said he's had many rewarding experiences working in black communities. "When I first came on the job, I would work in black communities -- Wyandanch, Amityville -- and the reaction I got from people on the street was, 'Wow, there's a black officer.' And it took me at least 10 years or so before I stopped getting that reaction."

But, he said, he's made breakthroughs. "There are a lot of things that, as a black officer, people react to you differently. They open up more to you. They talk to you more. We just need more of that. Maybe you solve a crime a lot easier because they talk to you about things they might not talk to someone else about."

At a recent job fair at the Wyandanch Public Library, Barney talked to Joshua Brown, 22, who works as a bouncer and said he's considering a career as a police officer.

Brown, who lives in Wyandanch, said he has no concerns about the makeup of the force. He said as a child he had attended Police Athletic League programming and a youth explorer program with the Nassau police in Westbury, and that had helped foster positive feelings toward police.

"I'm a protect-and-serve type of guy," Brown said.

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