Riverhead Town is exploring the option of hiring a Spanish-speaking police officer, an addition that would help the department — whose ranks are overwhelmingly white — address a communications gap between law enforcement and Riverhead’s growing Hispanic population.
“We recognize that there’s an issue as far as communication goes, so we want to make sure we’re able to take care of that,” said Police Chief David Hegermiller.
In addition to the Civil Service list that’s normally used when officers are hired, the Town Board has requested the Spanish-speaking Civil Service list, a subset of the full list that includes only candidates with proven fluency in Spanish, said Supervisor Sean Walter. Chief Hegermiller added that the department will have the flexibility to hire from the full civil service list as well, should that prove to be a better option.
Advocates and officials in the police department have said better relations between the Hispanic community and police would make the town safer by encouraging people who would otherwise be unable to report crimes or provide tips to come forward.
“I think it’s a great thing to do,” Mr. Walter told the News-Review. “Hopefully, we can find some qualified people on that list.”
Nearly two years ago, a News-Review report noted that Riverhead’s police force was the least diverse of all East End police departments — not including the tiny Shelter Island department — despite the fact that Riverhead is the East End’s most racially diverse town. At that time, 82 of Riverhead’s 85 officers were white. And in the two years since, no black or Spanish-speaking officers have been hired.
Part of the disparity, the town said at the time, comes from the civil service system itself. The county police exam is conducted every four years and Suffolk County Police Department officials said more than 19,000 people passed the test in June 2011. Of those, 7.7 percent were black and 16.4 percent Hispanic. State law requires that police departments hire from among the top-scoring candidates, regardless of race. Riverhead chooses from a smaller pool because it prefers to hire from among town residents who pass the county test.
Mr. Walter said rules for hiring police officers force the town to review the same candidates each year. Pulling the Spanish-speaking list comprised of only Riverhead residents will enable the town to consider a more varied group of candidates, he said.
A couple of years ago, Mr. Walter stated that he would rather not consider skin color when making hires, since “it’s time to start looking beyond what our colors and our differences are.”
Right now, the town has one opening on the force due to the retirement of Det. Sgt. Joseph Loggia later this month. Mr. Walter said he hopes to hire a new officer “immediately.”
Town councilman and former police officer James Wooten said a Spanish-speaking officer would add a different set of skills to the department’s ranks.
Mr. Wooten said a Spanish-speaking officer — especially one who is also of Hispanic heritage — would be able to tap into the largest growing Hispanic population on the East End.
“I think it’s imperative we look at that list to try to address that segment of our society,” he said. “There’s a comfort level that has to be here that’s not there. Some have integrated themselves into the mainstream, but for the most part, people keep to themselves.”
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 and about 9 percent indicated 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.
“The police department has to be representative [of its community],” Mr. Wooten said. “Communication is everything.”
The town’s department has already taken steps to improve communication with Hispanic residents. The town ran a cultural immersion course for officers two years ago, for example, and last year installed a translation hotline at the front desk.
That hotline allows officers taking complaints from residents to communicate, through a translating service, with those who can’t speak English and hear their concerns and tips.
Police Captain Richard Smith said he has seen officers using the hotline since it was installed last June.
“I think it’s a positive thing,” he said, adding that a handful of officers on the 85-man squad have used Rosetta Stone software, provided in each of the sector cars’ computers, to teach themselves Spanish.
“We’ve got a few guy who have learned it on their own,” Capt. Smith said. “We’re pretty proud of them.”
Sister Margaret Smyth, executive director of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, said hiring a Spanish-speaking officer would be a positive step.
“I can’t tell you how many people come in here and have been stopped by police who have been treated nicely — that’s not the problem — but have no idea what happened or what they need to be doing,” she said.
Sister Margaret and others at the Apostolate work with local Hispanic residents to help them file taxes, get food and clothing and fill out paperwork for government documents or traffic tickets. She said the Apostolate also directs immigrants and residents toward classes that teach English.
“On our side, we push for people to be learning English, but it also helps the town to have the availability of people who can communicate in Spanish,” she said.
Now, Sister Margaret said, the town and police department have to continue to follow through on their efforts.