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Suffolk nonprofit pushes to bring more minorities to law enforcement

The Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk will pay the $125 exam fee for low-income residents. The fee is the same for both the police department and the sheriff's office.

The Suffolk County Police Department swore in 119

The Suffolk County Police Department swore in 119 recruits in October at a ceremony at the police academy in Brentwood. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

A Suffolk community group has called on the county’s police department and sheriff’s office to become more inclusive — and is putting its money where its mouth is.

The Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk will cover the cost of the $125 exam fee, charged by both departments, for county residents with incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level. 

“We don’t have enough law enforcement officers from lower economic groups, especially people of color,” said Adrian Fassett, the council’s chief executive. “If we remove the impediment of the fee, we can get more kinds of people in law enforcement.”

Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Sheriff Errol Toulon welcomed the council's effort to make their agencies more diverse.

“My goal is to encourage as many people as possible to take the correction officer exam,” said Toulon, whose office manages the county jails in Yaphank and Riverhead. “But the registration fee is prohibitive for some individuals, especially if they would like to take multiple tests.”

For Hart, the council's offer complements the $215,000 marketing blitz that she and County Executive Steve Bellone unveiled last fall to encourage members of minority communities to take the department’s June 15 exam. The department also expanded its recruiting staff last year from one to four officers to attract more minority candidates, she said.

“This is great,” Hart said of the council's effort. “It is another piece in our outreach campaign.”

The campaign was necessary to help mend the department’s once-strained relationship with the county’s Latino community, Hart and Bellone said.

In late 2013, Suffolk police reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to overhaul its policing of minority communities after a yearslong federal civil rights investigation prompted by the fatal stabbing of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero by a group of teens in Patchogue. The 2008 death brought to light allegations that the police hadn't fully investigated reports of other attacks on Latino immigrants. 

Last fall, a Justice Department assessment found that Suffolk police had made substantial progress in the major areas being tracked — bias-free policing, hate crimes and hate incidents, language assistance, allegations of police misconduct and community engagement — but warned that “a persistent mistrust” remains between the Latino community and the police. Federal monitoring is ongoing.

“It is something they had to do but, I believe their hearts and minds are now in the right place,” Fassett said of the police.

Black candidates, Fassett said, are reluctant to take the police exam because of so few African-Americans on the force. The highest-ranking black officer, he said, is a detective sergeant; Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis is a civilian appointee.

“That is something we obviously want to remedy,” Hart said. “We want the community to feel that they are part of this department, that we are all in this together. If they have a desire to serve, we have a desire to have them as part of our family.”

The sheriff’s office corrections officer exam will be offered April 27; the registration deadline is March 13. The deadline for the June 15 police department exam is April 3.

The council will cap the amount it spends on the exams, Fassett said. Assistance will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis, he said.

The federal poverty level depends on the size of a family For an individual, 125% of the poverty level is an annual income of $15,175. For a family of four, the amount is $31,375.

More information on the fee-waiver program is at https://eoc-suffolk.com.

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