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Suffolk police training most diverse class in department's history, officials say

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Suffolk

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone in Hauppauge  Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

More than a quarter of the recruits being trained at the Suffolk police academy are minorities, officials said, making the latest class the most diverse in the department’s history.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart will swear in 54 recruits beginning their 30-week training Monday at the police academy in Brentwood. Fifty other members of the class were sworn in on March 29.

"It is about effective policing," Bellone said. "The single biggest thing we can to enhance the effectiveness of the department is to increase diversity to make it reflective of the community it serves."

Twenty-eight percent of the 104 recruits in the class, which includes eight women, are minorities, officials said. Ten of those are Spanish-speaking. Four of the recruits are Black, 24 are Hispanic and one is Native American. The remaining recruits are white.

The second-most diverse class — 22% — entered the class in 2016, officials said.

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 DOJ in 2014 made an agreement in response to complaints from advocates over the department's treatment of the Latino community.

The latest settlement agreement in Suffolk requires the department to meet benchmarks in several areas. It followed complaints about police treatment of Latinos after the 2008 hate-crime killing of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero, 37, who was fatally beaten by a group of white youths in Patchogue. The DOJ, in its most recent report, said Suffolk police had made progress but still fell short in three of five critical benchmarks.

Earlier this month, a federal judge certified a lawsuit accusing the Suffolk Police Department of engaging in widespread racial discrimination against Latinos as a class action, a decision lawyers for the plaintiffs hope will lead to the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee policing in the county.

Bellone said on Sunday the biggest factor in attracting a more diverse class of recruits was revamping the county’s Civil Service department. In 2019, Bellone fired Alan Schneider, the longtime head of the Department of Human Resources, Personnel and Civil Service. Bellone also brought other new leaders into the department, including the county’s first-ever chief diversity officer, Retha Fernandez.

Only one of the department’s 77 employees was not white when Schneider was removed from the position he had held for 36 years.

"What we are striving for is structural change," Bellone said. "My goal is to move the department to a place where its officers reflect the communities they serve."

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart — who became the first woman to lead the department when Bellone appointed her in 2018 — said the $215,000 marketing blitz unleashed by the department in 2018 urging minority residents to take the entrance exam helped boost diversity.

"We need to be more diverse as a department but this is a good step in the right direction," she said.

Hart said the campaign in minority media and on social media was guided by data gathered by Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, who asked Suffolk police officers of color why they joined the department.

"We want to help our communities," was the most frequent response, Hart said, which allowed the department to tailor its message, depicting officers as guardians rather than warriors.

Under Hart, the department has expanded the number of officers dedicated to recruitment from one to four, and it is working with community groups to meet with candidates and address reservations they may have about careers in law enforcement. The theme of the department’s outreach program, Hart said, is "We are doing this together."

The department is working with minority officers’ fraternal organizations and community groups to sell careers with Suffolk police, according to the commissioner.

"When candidates see officers of color, it makes them feel more comfortable with the idea of a career in law enforcement," Hart said.

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