In a little more than two weeks, a group of young Huntington residents have gone from being the target of a racist rant to having the ear of numerous elected officials and law-enforcement leaders.
When they came together at a forum at a private home last week, the group, known as Leaders of the New School-Huntington, had the chance to ask polite but firm questions about police reforms, the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center, housing and jobs.
Listening to them and take their questions were, among others, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, Deputy Police Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, District Attorney Tim Sini, Second Precinct commander Insp. William Scrima, school superintendents Dr. David Bennardo and James W. Polansky, school board member Xavier Palacios, Huntington Supervisor Chad Lupinacci, town council members Joan Cergol, Ed Smyth and Mark Cuthbertson, State Sen. James Gaughran, and deputy Suffolk County executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter.
It was Hart who fielded the most questions, many of them related to diversity in the department. She acknowledged shortcomings but outlined steps the department was taking to improve the makeup of the force and make more promotion opportunities available to minority officers, and said that they are studying disparities in arrest and traffic stop rates to identify problems.
Asked about promotion to police executive ranks, Hart, who came to the department from the FBI, said the department was examining its procedures. “We want to make sure we’re asking the same questions (of promotion candidates); are they tracking what happens in those interviews. If they are not selected, is there the opportunity to reach out and explain why,” and consider ways to shift assignments for candidates to prepare them” for the next chance at a promotion.
Sini outlined several efforts to diversify his staff, and noted that he has pursued several environmental cases. “Environmental crimes are usually committed by white people against black and brown communities,” he said. He said his office had “moved the needle” to change the makeup of his office, including partnering with law schools with a greater number of minority students.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” he said, adding that in the last two years, 23 percent of new hires were from minority populations, changing the office from 91 percent white to 86 percent white.
Town officials took several questions about the best way to provide affordable housing and the future of the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center, which is expected to relocate to the James D. Conte Center, in the former armory on East Fifth Street, when it opens.
Tracey A. Edwards, former town councilwoman and regional director of the NAACP, served as moderator, and kept a close watch on the clock as people began detailed responses to often-complex issues. The meeting was organized by Kevin Thorbourne, the town’s director of minority affairs.
Some of the Leaders of the New School asked questions about support for single parents, and other programs, SAT preparation, school issues and such programs as educational opportunities for older immigrants.
Baird-Streeter spoke up to emphasize the importance of responding to the US Census, pointing out that many of the programs they asked about depended on funds that result from an accurate count of the population.