Suffolk Struggles To Reform Discriminatory Policing Against Latinos

Feb 29, 2016

Eight years ago, Latinos complained that Suffolk County police were ignoring them. They complained about beatings and thefts. They complained that police did nothing and even discouraged them from filing reports.

After the hate-motivated killing of an Ecuadorian immigrant, the U.S. Justice Department investigated. To settle that investigation, Suffolk agreed to reforms and federal monitoring.

According to roughly 600 pages of correspondence between Suffolk and the DOJ obtained by WSHU, 18 months into the reform effort, Suffolk is still struggling at some of the most basic components of unbiased policing.

Latinos Still Targeted

Carlos Barrientos reviews the $9,000 in ticket fees he's received over the last four years.
Credit Charles Lane / WSHU

Last summer, Carlos Barrientos was driving down Sunrise Highway. A Suffolk County police officer was driving in the opposite direction.

“The police officer looked, and he frowned,” Barrientos says. “He looked at the plates and put the lights on right away, and he turned around.”

The officer asked for license and registration. Barrientos doesn’t have them because he is in the country illegally. Like most immigrants in the country illegally, his car is registered in Illinois, which doesn’t require a driver’s license to get a license plate.

“When a police officer sees that the plates are from another state, and the one driving is a Latino, it’s automatic,” he says. “They are going to stop you.”

The officer gave him three tickets that day. Barrientos has several stories like this because it happens all the time to him and his friends.

Over the last four years, Barrientos has paid $9,000 in tickets. Not because of speeding or accidents, but because he can’t legally register his car. Barrientos says he understands driving without the proper documentation is illegal, but he says police are targeting him just because of his ethnicity.

According to data collected by Suffolk police, he is correct.

The Data

As part of a reform agreement with the federal government, police are actually collecting data on this. Suffolk has so far compared some 30-thousand traffic stops made in 2015 to local Census figures. The data show Hispanic and Black drivers were pulled over more often than expected. They also show White and Asian drivers were pulled over less often than expected.

But Suffolk Police dispute the data analysis.

“Use of the Census data was flawed at best, possibly irrelevant,” says Chris Love, a lawyer for Suffolk Police.

Love suspects Census workers may have undercounted Blacks and Hispanics, therefore skewing benchmarks.

But buried in the data are less explainable statistics. For instance, in the wealthy areas of Huntington and Smithtown, police stopped two to three times the number of Latinos who live in those neighborhoods. Meanwhile on the highway, where a driver’s ethnicity would be little more than a blur, Hispanic drivers were actually stopped fewer times than expected.

Love says the report was only based on four months of data and therefore limited. “The DOJ did make a couple comments on the conclusions that that report resulted on. But again, we acknowledge the fact that it was a draft report.”

Unrelated to Census data, almost every single time Suffolk police stopped a Hispanic driver, they took some type of action. Non-Hispanic drivers were much more likely to be let off with a warning.

Still, police expect future reports to reveal less biased traffic stops. Even if the biased stops continue, Love says Suffolk has a plan.

“The remedy would be broad-based training to prevent it from continuing,” he says, “And individual discipline.”

“Latinos can’t wait”

Advocates for Latinos say police are just making excuses, and, right now, the data show biased traffic stops are irreparably harming Latinos.

Foster Maer, a lawyer with the civil rights group Latino Justice, calls traffic stops “a fundamental aspect of how the police interacts with the community and how the community views the police.”

“It just has to stop immediately. And I don’t get the sense from the current leadership that they view it with the same concern,” says Maer.

Maer fears the biased traffic stops underscore larger issues for Latinos. “Yes, this police force is out to get you, not help you.”

Anti-bias Policy

Making a traffic stop based solely on the driver’s race, ethnicity, or country of origin is called racial profiling. The practice is forbidden in the Suffolk County Police Department.

Experts classify anti-bias policies as either loose or narrow. Both are commonly accepted, but a loose policy requires much more discipline among officers and supervisors to ensure civil rights are not violated.

According to correspondence between the Department of Justice and Suffolk County Police, Suffolk pushed for a loose policy while the DOJ pushed for a narrow policy.

“I would think that the Department of Justice is pushing Suffolk to have a very narrow policy because they’ve identified problems,” says Lori Fridell, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and an expert on anti-biased policing.

Well-disciplined police departments generally want a loose policy because it would allow officers to use race-based characteristics when searching for bad guys, for example if police were investigating a Black or Latino gang.

But the Feds appeared hesitant to give Suffolk that much flexibility, and repeatedly pushed Suffolk to tighten department policy. In one letter, U.S. Attorneys wrote that Suffolk was creating a quote “safe harbor” for discriminatory policing.

“The Department of Justice might push a tighter policy if they don’t have full confidence in an agency,” says Fridell.

Cadets at the Suffolk County Police Academy
Credit Charles Lane / WSHU

After months of back and forth, the DOJ eventually gave Suffolk the flexibility to use a looser anti-bias policy. But to be sure Suffolk police didn’t abuse the looser policy, the Justice Department set about to vigorously overhaul Suffolk’s training program. Anti-bias training material was scrutinized, experts were brought into to modernize it, and sessions were lengthened, all to keep police from unfairly targeting Latinos.

Police Aren’t Listening

Latinos have been complaining about bias traffic stops for years. They say the problem is police aren’t listening, and they can’t speak Spanish.

As part of the reform settlement, the federal government mandated Suffolk police meet more with Latinos. To organize those meetings, the department did not turn to one of their 3,000 highly trained, highly paid workers to engage with the community. Instead, Suffolk police went to Eiliana Fernandez and asked her to organize a meeting for them.

“I had to do the outreach, the flyers,” says Fernandez. “Talking to different people, sending emails inviting people.”

Eliana Fernandez organized a community meeting for Suffolk County Police.
Credit Joe Ryder / WSHU

Fernandez did it for free while working full-time, going to school full-time, and taking care of two children.

She says she is eager to do it again because she wants her kids to have a better relationship with police. But she is still frustrated with the effort police are putting in.

“We have a big, big Latino community here and I don’t think the efforts they’re making are big enough to reach out to everyone.”

The US Justice Department agreed.

In letters written to Suffolk police last year, the federal government repeatedly prodded Suffolk to meet more with Latinos. Months would go by, no meetings. Again, the Justice Department would urge more meetings. Finally, late last year, Fernandez had her meeting. But it wasn’t quite what she expected.

“I wish I had better control of that, maneuvering the time. That way the community would have had more time to interact with them and actually ask questions to them.”

According to Fernandez and other Latinos, police came to the meeting with a 70-minute PowerPoint presentation about community engagement. They left about 20 minutes to actually talk and listen. Many Latinos weren’t impressed.

“They don’t think the police department is going to work with the community,” Fernandez says.

Communication Disconnect

In one letter, the Department of Justice went so far as to say there was a quote “communication disconnect” between Latinos and police.

Despite this, Suffolk told the DOJ they were in quote “substantial compliance” with the reform agreement and no longer needed federal oversight.

The Justice Department disagreed.

“Disconnect is a very strong word,” says Love, the Suffolk police lawyer. “I think it’s possible to have communication barriers. I think it’s possible to be accused of being indifferent in certain circumstances, but a disconnect is a bit of an exaggeration.”

Love says the police are trying to improve engagement. They created specialized community oriented police officers who meet with clergy and advocacy groups. Several of those meetings, however, have fallen through.

Love says the missed meetings were merely scheduling conflicts. “Meetings would be scheduled; there would be conflicts. We would reschedule it, and there would be another conflict.”

Among Latino advocates, there’s agreement that there has been improvement since the federal government started monitoring. But there’s also a frustration that police are just checking off boxes on a DOJ compliance form.

“Some of it is not rocket science,” says Walter Barrientos, a community organizer with Make The Road New York. “Long Island is not drastically different than other diverse communities around the country.”

Speaking Spanish 

According to Census data, about 20% of Suffolk residents don’t speak English at home. In parts of Brentwood and Patchogue, it’s common to see and hear nothing but Spanish.

To accommodate this, Suffolk police polled their officers and identified about 6% of their staff as having some level of Spanish.

“That could be that a police officer took Spanish in high school,” Barrientos says. “That doesn’t necessarily mean to me that you can actually effectually engage with the community especially as a police officer.”

Also, only about one third of the self-identified officers are stationed in the heavily Spanish-speaking areas of the first, third, or fifth precincts.

The Justice Department is helping Suffolk develop a certification and incentive programs, but it's taken months to vet and sign a contractor. Currently, Suffolk has three officers who have been certified to translate.

“The real difficulty in the language access piece of this agreement is actually implementing it,” Love says.

Love says cops who have been working in Spanish-speaking areas for a while have developed their own techniques to solve a common problem. Maybe they’ve picked up enough pidgin Spanish, or they use a bilingual child in the house.

“And now our mission is to get them to stop, slow down, and revert to a longer, somewhat more tedious process, but that will get a better result in the end.”

Love says they are making progress but teaching old cops new methods is difficult. Meanwhile, Latinos wonder, why not just get new cops?

“I think most of the officers are Caucasian, White. I think that they should have more Latino officers or more people that speak the language,” Fernandez says.

Fernandez still plans to use her free time to organize engagement meetings for police.

“I want to make sure that that changes especially as my kids grow older. I don’t want them to be targeted just because they’re Latina, just because the way they look, just because of their last names.”

Fernandez just hopes Suffolk police will eventually match her efforts.