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Despite Promises To Diversify, Suffolk County Police Have Remained Mostly White

Detective Sergeant Jeffrey Walker, President of the Guardians, Suffolk’s fraternal organization for Black police officers
Charles Lane
WSHU Public Radio
Detective Sergeant Jeffrey Walker, President of the Guardians, Suffolk’s fraternal organization for Black police officers";

Despite assurances from officials in Suffolk County that “historic” strides are being made to diversify the Long Island county’s predominantly white police department, police employment records show very little has actually changed in regards to recruitment and promotions.

An analysis of documents obtained through a freedom-of-information request reveals that, after welcoming the latest graduating class from the police academy, the Suffolk County Police Department only added a net total of five non-white officers to the department’s ranks, partly due to retirements among other officers of color. The result is that, in a county where a third of residents describe themselves as non-white, the number of police officers who do so only stands at 16%, an increase of less than 1% since the start of the year.

Suffolk Police demographic statistics

The same holds true for how officers move up in their careers. County officials had previously declined to turn over demographic information on promotions within the police department, but the employment records show those have also lagged. The number of people of color in jobs that rank above entry-level police officer increased by just 0.2%, meaning 89% of higher ranking officers are white.

'Most Diverse'

The findings stand in stark contrast to the way elected officials have publicly touted their progress in diversifying the county’s police force.

Earlier this year, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone stood before a socially-distanced gymnasium full of police cadets at the county’s police academy in Brentwood to swear in the latest class of recruits, proudly stating that 28% of them were women or people of color.

“The most effective way we can improve, enhance is to make sure the department reflects the diversity of the communities that we serve,” Bellone told the cadets.

Weeks later, he announced a new class of detectives that he described as the “most diverse” in the county’s history. And last month, he trumpeted the promotion of the first person of color to the rank of chief, saying he’s “laser focused” on diversifying the department.

This comes after a 2019 overhaul of the department’s promotion process that, in part, requires all officers to be internally notified of promotion opportunities.

But Detective Sergeant Jeffrey Walker, who also serves as president of the Guardians — Suffolk’s fraternal organization for Black police officers — has blamed the department of favoritism, and of using an unfair process that he claims has made it harder for people of color to move up into higher-level positions.

“It's very easy if you get frustrated on the job, if you believe that opportunities weren't afforded to you, to not put yourself out there again,” Walker said. “That was something that I think that we had to work on as a police department.”

In an interview conducted in the presence of Suffolk County’s Acting Police Commissioner, Stuart Cameron, and Dawn Schob, a department spokesperson, Walker said he’d repeatedly raised concerns about the promotion process with elected officials over several years, including Bellone and then-Police Commissioner Tim Sini, but that nothing was done to begin addressing the problem until Cameron stepped into the role in April.

“You'd have to ask those in the administration what they did with those conversations. What I made it a point to focus on is that we need an equitable process,” Walker said, adding that the county’s former police commissioner, Geraldine Hart, who stepped down in April, “could have been given more support by some other people in the police department.”

At that point, Schob immediately terminated the interview.

“I don't think that we should be discussing conversations that he had with other administrators who aren’t here,” she said.

Hart did not return emails and phone messages requesting comment.

Recruitments And Retirements

According to the department’s Deputy Police Commissioner, Risco Mention-Lewis, efforts to diversify the Suffolk police force have also faced a stubbornly small pool of non-white candidates taking the entrance test for the police academy and a steady turnover of retirements.

In 2016, the percentage of non-white cadets stood at just 10%, according to a discrimination lawsuit, which the department eventually settled. But Mention-Lewis believes recent changes she’s made to recruitment led to a more diverse class of cadets this past April.

“It took a few years for me to figure out how to recruit in a way that people of color would come in higher numbers,” Mention-Lewis said. “It took me a while to figure out the advertising.”

But, she said, that success — in both recruitment and promotions — hasn’t kept pace with the number of officers of color leaving the department.

“Black, white, Latino, women — people are retiring,” Mention-Lewis said.

Although the department has promoted 11 people of color over the past year, seven non-white officers left over the same time period.

In Suffolk County, promotions to the level of sergeant, lieutenant and captain are based solely on an officer’s score on civil service exams. Other ranks, such as detective, inspector and chief, are based on supervisor recommendations and interviews.

In July, police officials announced an internal affairs investigation that found two officers had shared questions in advance when interviewing other department employees for promotions. Going forward, the department said it would bring in outside law enforcement to help conduct interviews. Since then, a Latino detective sued, claiming he was passed over because of his race.

“We are the first generation out of apartheid.” Mention-Lewis said. “We are seeing the remnants of that, but we will work hard to change it.”

‘A Big Enough Club’

Concerns about limited opportunities for officers of color in Suffolk date back years. In 2013, then-county lawmaker DuWayne Gregory wrote to the police commissioner to complain about an almost entirely white promotion class that year. He wrote again in 2017, urging the commissioner to regularly meet with the Guardians, which he said could advise on personnel concerns.

Officials for Bellone said they’re not happy with the department’s lack of diversity and have been working to improve it. Despite the cheating scandal, and Walker's complaints of an unfair promotion process, they largely fault the civil service process for preventing candidates of color from entering police ranks.

“Yes, there may have been barriers in the way,” Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter said. “One of those barriers was the civil service leadership. But I think that we have good leadership in place now.”

Baird-Streeter also points out that for positions where discretionary appointments within the police are allowed, those ranks are less white — though still far from reflecting Suffolk’s population.

Randolph McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer and professor at Pace University, said if county officials failed to heed the Guardian’s previous calls for more diverse hiring and promotion practices, it was because the fraternal order lacked the power to change the department.

“They don't have a big enough club,” McLaughlin said. “The only club that the department will respect is a judgment and an order from a judge — a federal judge."

The police departments in both Suffolk and neighboring Nassau County have been operating under federal consent decrees for over 35 years. McLaughlin argues those haven’t worked to change the departments, and that more outside pressure is needed. He’s encouraging officers to sue.

“Honestly, I think it's just a matter of time,” McLaughlin said. “This is a suit just waiting to be filed.”

Employment records for Nassau County, also released through a freedom-of-information request, show a lack of diversity that’s similar to Suffolk. Among all officers in the Nassau County Police Department, 87% are white, and nearly nine out of 10 of those above the rank of detective are white.

Nassau police officials did not respond to multiple inquiries.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.