In diverse area, Riverhead police force remains overwhelmingly white

02/10/2012 9:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Former Riverhead Police Sergeant Donald Green was the town's first black cop.

Riverhead Town’s police force serves the most ethnically and racially diverse community on the East End, yet it’s the least diverse among town departments on the North and South forks, the News-Review has found.

Criminal justice experts and police officials have long maintained that police departments should accurately reflect their communities, saying this helps ease relations between officers and the community, while arming the force with valuable insights into minority-based neighborhoods.

But the striking lack of diversity in Riverhead’s police department is not a cut-and-dried issue, and potential solutions are not easy, experts and local officials said. And while some, including Riverhead’s first black officer, see the need for greater minority representation on the force, the town supervisor — who also serves as police commissioner — said the town shouldn’t consider race in any form when trying to fill jobs.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 84.6 percent of Riverhead’s 33,500 residents identified themselves as white. Just over 8.7 percent of Riverheaders said they were black, while about 9 percent declared they were some other race, such as Asian or Native American. Almost 14 percent of Riverhead’s census respondents were Hispanic, a rising demographic in the town in recent years.

(Hispanic is an ethnicity, and is counted separately from racial identifiers such as “black” or “white.”)

Yet the Riverhead Police Department is overwhelmingly white, with nearly 96.5 percent of its 85-officer squad listed as white, according to a personnel report filed with the U.S. Department of Justice. The squad has two black officers, one male and one female, and one Asian officer. The department has no native Spanish-speaking officers, though officials said one officer learned Spanish through what’s called an “immersion class,” paid for by a grant.

Due to its larger size and small number of minority officers, the Riverhead Police Department is statistically the least diverse among town departments on the North and South forks. Southampton’s police department is about 93 percent white, while East Hampton’s force is the most diverse, at 90.6 percent white. Southold’s police department is slightly more diverse than Riverhead’s; while just two of Southold’s 52 officers are black, the department is actually more diverse than the town’s overall population. All four of the East End town police forces examined lag behind in representing their growing Hispanic populations, though only Southold and Riverhead have no Hispanic officers.

Part of the disparity, the town says, comes from the civil service system. The county police exam is conducted every four years and Suffolk County Police Department officials said more than 19,000 people passed the test last June. Of those, 7.7 percent were black and 16.4 percent Hispanic. State law requires that police hire from among the top candidates, regardless of race. Riverhead Town chooses from a smaller pool because they prefer to hire from among Riverhead Town residents who pass the county’s test. Data on the demographics of Riverhead residents who took the test was unavailable, and the town’s two black officers currently on the force were unable to be reached for comment.

Graph showing the racial makeup of the Riverhead Police Department. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

NO EASY ANSWERS

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said that while he would like a more diverse police force, he could only work with those who pass the exam.

“Every time I speak I always say, ‘Take the test,’ ” he said. “If you don’t take the test, you’re out of luck. There’s no way I can get to you.”

A hiring freeze due to town budgetary concerns makes it even less likely that many minority officers will be hired anytime soon, he added. The town’s 85-man squad is the largest force in the town’s history, Mr. Hegermiller said, and will remain at that level for at least a year, meaning the department might only fill a couple of spots if one or two current officers retire.

The chief said the department does do some recruitment in the community — for instance at churches, Riverhead Free Library and Riverhead High School — just before the county police exam is held. But he said he was unsure why so few minorities make it onto his force, theorizing that many from within the town just aren’t taking the test.

“If they don’t take the test, honestly, I’ll never see them,” he said. He added that he didn’t see the disparity in minority representation as a problem, yet it was something that he would like to see improved.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter took a different stance, saying issues of race on the police force shouldn’t be discussed.

“Black, white, Spanish, Asian, I don’t think that’s the question,” he said. “In this town, it’s time to start looking beyond what our colors and our differences are. We’re all guilty of our stereotyping. I think we need to get beyond that as a society.”

But police officials and scholars from across the country insist having few minorities in police roles can make it harder for cops to do their job. Some departments are taking steps to increase diversity within the police by targeting minority areas with recruitment drives, print and public transit advertising and open forums to mentor those who want to be officers.

Delores Jones-Brown, a professor of law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said that while it may be admirable to hope for a society where race is no longer a question, to say society should move past issues of race glosses over major disparities that remain.

“That is part of the modern day dilemma,” Dr. Jones-Brown said. “We speak and people resonate with a language of colorblindness, but at the same time we behave in ways that recognize race and ethnicity and language differences.”

A diverse police force helps police do their job by opening up communication between cops and the community, while also preventing dangerous situations caused by language barriers, Dr. Jones-Brown said. Town police could do more to recruit minorities, she said, by using models of active recruiting from other police departments that had gaps in racial diversity.

“The notion that ‘we’re bound by this civil service test and if people don’t pass the test, what can we do?’ … that’s old and played out at this point,” she said. “That’s an excuse that any department can offer.”

She said the mechanics of minority representation were not as simple as who passed the test and who didn’t. For example, she said, a white applicant whose family member served as a cop would hold a “legacy” advantage over those who didn’t. Legacy candidates would have better access to current police officers who could mentor the applicant and give them advice for the test. Minority candidates, she said, don’t generally have that support network, making it harder for them to receive the support they need to score well on the test.

Minorities might also encounter backlash from their own communities if they became an officer due to decades of previous mistrust built up between minority groups and police. This is not unique to black or Hispanic groups, Dr. Jones-Brown added. The same issues played out with Irish, Italian, German and even Jewish immigrants more than a century ago, she said.

The biggest challenge, she concluded, is starting a conversation with minorities in Riverhead and recognizing gaps in diversity that exist today.

“The first barrier that needs to be gotten over is convincing folks that they should be interested in being on the police department, and that they would be welcome on the department,” she said.

Tracie Keesee, a captain in the Denver Police Department and co-founder of the Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity, a research group of academics and police officials that looks at law enforcement and social sciences, admitted that adding more minorities to police forces is not an easy task.

“The reason why there’s no easy fix is because there’s so many issues behind it,” she said, citing historical mistrust between police and minority groups and socio-economic factors. “As much as people would like to think those issues are in the past, there are individuals who have trust issues with police.”

Aggressive and targeted recruitment in minority areas is one way to educate minorities about law enforcement, Dr. Keesee said.

Ride-alongs with police and educational meetings in minority areas may all help build trust in the police force, she said, and encouraging support from family members is essential.

“Don’t confuse focused recruiting with the lowering of standard,” Dr. Keesee said. “That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to have outreach to communities you want to see represented on the police force and [prove] that it’s a viable option.”

COURTESY PHOTO | Sgt. Donald Green in the 1980s.

IS COMPLACENCY TO BLAME?

Donald Green had always wanted to help people.

That’s why Mr. Green, a black man born in Queens, took the Suffolk County Civil Service Exam to be a police officer. When Riverhead police made him a job offer to join the force in 1973, he jumped at the chance and became the first black cop in Riverhead history.

“I enjoyed very much serving the citizens of the town of Riverhead,” Mr. Green said in an interview. “It made me feel that I had a purpose in life and for the most part it was an enjoyable experience.”

But Mr. Green, who was pulled from the county police list and was not a Riverhead resident, said he was resented by some in Riverhead’s black community.

“They felt I was an ‘Uncle Tom,’ ” he said. “They felt that a black should not be a police officer because they weren’t used to seeing black police officers … It’s the perception [blacks have toward the police department] that’s the problem, whether it’s accurate or not.”

The Manorville resident, who was ultimately promoted to sergeant, said he never moved to Riverhead because he didn’t want to expose his young daughter to the potential dangers of being a local officer’s child. He retired in 1995 after his wife died suddenly, leaving him a single parent. He sued the town in 1996 for racial discrimination and the matter was settled out of court. He said he still can’t discuss the case.

Until the town accepts that diversity should be addressed, Mr. Green said he’s not optimistic the racial and ethnic gap can be closed.

“As long as the town doesn’t recognize there is a need for more black officers there’s not going to be motivation for them to find ways to get more black officers,” he said. “They don’t see it as a problem, or at least won’t acknowledge that a problem exists. That is not one of their top priorities, if a priority at all.”

It’s not just black community members who are urging for more from the town. Councilman James Wooten, who was a Riverhead cop for 23 years and served under Mr. Green’s command, said the town should be doing a better job of encouraging minorities to take the test.

“If you really want to draw in minorities and bilingual communities, then you have to target recruitment,” he said. “I don’t think Riverhead is doing as much as they can.”

Mr. Wooten said that during his time on the Riverhead force, he encountered the same perception issues from minority communities Mr. Green spoke about, tension he believes still somewhat exists today.

“There was this element that I was stereotyped as someone who wasn’t going to be fair to them,” Mr. Wooten said. “Most everyday citizens don’t mind the police, but some people feel threatened by police. There’s a lot of stereotyping and — right, wrong, or indifferent — there’s a lot of mistrust.”

And while the perception of the Riverhead Police Department has improved thanks to organizations like the Council for Unity anti-gang group at Riverhead High School and other police initiatives, Mr. Wooten rejected Mr. Walter’s notion that the town should not concern itself with issues of race.

“[What Mr. Walter said] is very conservative and fluffy and very nice, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the police department should be reflective of our community, period,” Mr. Wooten said. “Riverhead is not an all-white community. We have to address this.”

psquire@timesreview.com

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