Univision, Telemundo and other Spanish-language media outlets have competition from an unlikely source: the Suffolk County Police Department.
Suffolk police are creating new Spanish-language content for a Facebook page as part of an ongoing effort to communicate more effectively and strengthen ties with the county’s growing Latino community. Suffolk Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said the goal is to educate residents born in other countries about how police operate.
“A lot of people come from countries where law enforcement is different than it is here in America,” Cameron said. “People have an institutional fear of law enforcement. We want to get out the message that we are here to help everybody.”
Suffolk police reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013 to overhaul policing of minority communities after a yearslong civil rights investigation that was prompted by the fatal stabbing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero by a group of teens in Patchogue. Lucero’s death brought to light allegations that police had not fully investigated reports of attacks on other Latino immigrants.
Suffolk’s foreign-born population rose from 14.5% in 2009-13 to 15.5% in 2014-18, the U.S. Census Bureau said Dec. 19, and many of the county’s 1.48 million foreign-born residents were born in Central American nations, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking nations.
“I think it is important for people in the Latino community to hear from people such as myself,” Cameron said. “We need to stay current with the evolution of Suffolk County.”
In the past, the department translated news releases and public service announcements from English to Spanish before putting them on Facebook. Cameron said the Spanish-language content, including video, being created now for the Latino community is driving more traffic to the Facebook page.
Marcos Maldonado, first vice president with the nonprofit Uplift Brentwood, said the Facebook page is a great idea that can be mutually beneficial for police and Hispanic residents. But he would like to see a comment section on the page so residents can share their experiences interacting with police, Maldonado said.
“I do see it as a net positive for the community and a way to help bridge the gap,” he said. “It’s going to open up the department to understanding the community in a way that it hasn’t ever before.
"Facebook is 24 hours. It’s at 3:30 in the morning when someone feels they were addressed wrong by the police. It’s also at 3 in the afternoon when the officer went above and beyond to help the community.”
Margarita Espada, community activist and executive director of the arts' center Teatro Experimental Yerbabruja in Bay Shore, said the Facebook page is a good idea in theory, but in practice, she also wonders how much input from Hispanics police will allow on the page.
"You don't want to open a page to only promote your events," Espada said. "I would like a page that really promotes a dialogue for both sides."
One planned video feature, called “A Minute with the Police Chief,” will feature Cameron fielding questions about police procedures and operations. And a recent public service announcement created for the page shows Cameron speaking to other police officers in Spanish about bicycle safety. “Solo un momento!” the chief says in the PSA, leaping out of his chair as the other officers look confused. "Just one moment!”
Cameron also is seen in a quiet suburban neighborhood, offering a helmet to a young man riding a bicycle. “Gracias, Jefe,” the man says in the video. “Thanks, Chief.”
Cameron began studying Spanish in the spring of 2018 and has become proficient enough to address audiences at churches and other public gatherings.
“I admire what Chief Cameron is doing,” said Liz Carrillo, Commissioner Geraldine Hart’s liaison to the Latino community. “Having leaders in the police department who are open-minded and want to work with the community makes a big difference.”
Cameron said the police department has made tremendous strides in language access in recent years, including adding a language line that provides translation services in Spanish and more than 200 other languages. The department will finish installing tablets in its 450 marked patrol cars in 2020 that will give officers access to translation services.
Ten percent of the officers hired in the past eight years have passed Spanish-proficiency tests, the chief added. About 20 officers also participated in a pilot program earlier this year intended to teach officers how to ask Spanish-speaking residents basic, but important questions — “Are you injured?” “Do you need an ambulance?” — in crisis situations.
People who say immigrants should speak English don’t know how difficult it is to learn a second language, especially as an adult, Cameron said.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “That’s why it is important to make sure the department is moving in the right direction.”