Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance,...

Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, calls on the Suffolk County Police Department to have more translators, during a newws conference outside the Third Precinct in Bay Shore. (Sept. 21, 2011) Credit: James Carbone

At the Suffolk County Police Department's Third Precinct station house, a sign on the front counter, written in Spanish, offers help with interpreters or in filling out forms.

The department says it's routinely providing that help, but immigrant and civil rights advocates disagree.

About 20 protesters gathered outside the station house in Bay Shore Wednesday called on the department to do a better job of providing interpreters, teaching officers Spanish and hiring bilingual employees.

The advocates view such improvements "as a first step" toward making police more responsive to a growing Hispanic community.

"It is incumbent upon the county to get it right with the Latino community," said Luis Valenzuela, of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. "It's problematic that today we have people from the community who are not being allowed access because of language issues."

The department, under a U.S. Department of Justice investigation over allegations of discriminatory policing stemming from the 2008 hate killing of immigrant Marcelo Lucero, issued a prompt rebuttal.

"We strongly refute the claims . . . that the Suffolk County Police Department is somehow dragging its feet in providing programs that will allow it to better communicate with members of the public," Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said in a statement.

Dormer called the department's efforts "a model for other municipalities," noting the launch of a bilingual police officer exam to attract Spanish-speaking applicants and an increase in bilingual 911 operators.

He also cited Spanish-language training requirements for recruits, efforts to translate police forms, and a section of the department website written in Spanish. The department, Dormer said, has linked "every precinct, investigative command and public police facility" to interpreters through a telephone service.

But Hispanic community advocates pointed to a domestic violence victim who said she had difficulty filing an accurate police report when information was lost in translation. They also discussed the case of a Latino immigrant who had difficulties filing a police report in the wake of a family altercation.

Central Islip business owner Alba Aquino said she felt left out at a Third Precinct community meeting last month that had no Spanish translator available. Aquino wanted to ask for more patrols to prevent street crime, but said she didn't dare speak up in her faulty English. "There's many of us who don't speak English, and we want to be heard," she said in Spanish.

A police spokesman Wednesday said the department will respond to such concerns by providing translators at community meetings. The department also will reach out to people who say they have encountered language barriers.

That barrier could become a more serious obstacle for immigrants reporting hate crimes or domestic violence incidents, advocates said. "Immigrant communities and immigrant advocates have been waiting far too long," said Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Until we see that immigrant communities and minority populations aren't living in fear, we won't be satisfied."

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