The congregation at The House of Judah, already driven into a joyous frenzy by a soulful band and the preaching of pastor Sylena Mangum, gave Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone a raucous welcome Sunday at the West Sayville church.
Bellone took the microphone from Mangum to deliver his pitch: County officials, he said, want young African-American men and women to join the Suffolk police department.
“I’m so proud of the police department,” Bellone said, touting the county’s historically low crime rates, “but to me it’s always about striving to be better, to be stronger. What can we do? The world around us is changing. How do we change to be stronger, to be better? For me, the best thing we can do to make the police department better, to make it stronger, is to make it more diverse.”
Bellone’s visit to The House of Judah was just one of the latest stops by police and county leaders to encourage members of Long Island’s minority communities, long underrepresented on the Suffolk police department, to take the exam this spring to join the force.
“We need more people from communities of color taking the exam because that is the pathway to get on the force and I will tell you there is nothing that would give me greater pleasure than to swear in new police officers from this community, from The House of Judah,” Bellone said to thunderous applause.
The visits to schools, churches and other institutions is part of a months-long $215,000 marketing campaign Bellone and Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart unveiled in November to encourage minorities to consider careers as cops. The campaign, led by Crown Advertising of Hauppauge, includes posts on social media, advertisements on buses and announcements in Spanish-language media, as well as visits to churches, schools and other institutions by police and county leaders. The department has also expanded its recruiting staff from one officer to four.
Both the Nassau and Suffolk police departments have been under federal monitoring, mandating the racial diversification of their ranks through consent decrees, since the 1980s in response to allegations of discrimination against black, Hispanic and female police candidates. Suffolk police and the federal Justice Department made an agreement in 2014 in response to complaints from advocates over the police department’s treatment of the Latino community.
Bellone’s visit Friday to the Masjid Darul Quran in Bay Shore, just a day after a self-avowed white supremacist killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, was far more somber than the reception he received at The House of Judah. Bellone had planned on urging young people to take the SCPD exam. Instead, that message took a back seat Friday to offering solace to the hundreds of people reeling in grief who arrived at the mosque for afternoon prayers.
Imam Muhammad Abdul Jabbar, however, said Bellone’s original message was also important. Having more Muslims on the police force — officers who understand his community’s faith and customs — would make him feel more comfortable with law enforcement. He said he encourages young members of his mosque to join police departments.
“You will be part of the solution,” he said he tells them.
Sohail Ahmed, 18, of North Babylon, said he has always wanted to be a police officer and had already applied to the Nassau police department. He said he decided to take the Suffolk test after speaking at the mosque with Officer Andrew Tepper of the SCPD’s Community Relations Bureau recruitment section.
“It would honestly be the best thing to be a role model in my community,” he said.
Applications for the entrance exam are available at joinscpd.com . The application deadline is April 3 and the entrance exam will be offered June 15. Applicants, who must be between the ages of 19 and 34, would be considered for the police academy’s Class of 2020.
Suffolk community relations Officer Wendy Verlotte, surrounded by potential police department applicants and well-wishers after Sunday’s services, said the warmth and affection she received at The House of Judah would be a real asset to the Suffolk police department.
“The fact is people can make change in our community through service, and this is a community that is service-oriented,” she said. “This has been such a positive experience. What a wonderful community.”