New York – To say that the Latino community in New York’s Suffolk County mistrusts its police department is an understatement.
The sentiment has been brewing for nearly a decade, following the hate-related murder of an Ecuadorian immigrant in 2008 and a perceived indifference to crimes involving Latinos thereafter.
But in recent months, the disconnection between police and the community collided with an increase in gang violence, creating a perfect storm.
I felt like if these were white students or if this is going on in another community perhaps communication with police would be different.
- Linda, Suffolk County resident
Residents are scared and parents terrorized, since street gangs – some with strong ties to the notorious MS-13 group – are vying to recruit the more than 3,000 migrant children younger than 18 who have recently settled in the area.
“The community is feeling like they don’t have enough support and mechanisms to come together and work with not just the police department but also schools,” said Walter Barrientos, an organizer from local advocacy group Make the Road NY, to Fox News Latino.
In late September, in the span of just two weeks, four teens from the same high school were found murdered in the Long Island town of Brentwood — MS-13 was quickly suspected but no arrests have been made.
Two of victims, both aged 15, suffered significant injuries to the head and face.
Many fear the gruesome discovery is proof that gang activity is spiraling out of control in the county, further aggravated by the communication barrier between the police and the Hispanic community.
Police commissioner Tim Sini, who took over the post in February, has been working to repair those ties and rebuild the community's trust in its police department.
So far, the county has added Spanish interpreters, implemented a better system for residents to file complaints against the department and inducted a new class of cadets that is 17 percent Hispanic.
Still, there is a long way to go. According to a yearly report that includes bias allegations against the police department, in the first quarter of 2016 there were 32 allegations of excessive force and unprofessional attitude by the police — in the entire 2015, the number of biased policing had been just over 50.
“It’s going to take time to put people in perfect places [to build trust] and we need to keep working at it every day,” Commissioner Sini told Fox News Latino. “The plans we have in place are the right plans. We need to make sure officers are not dismissive and are perfectly trained to not be dismissive.”
Some residents say they haven't noticed the changes and they still live in utter fear.
Linda, who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, said she found herself helpless when her daughter went missing from their Brentwood home earlier this year. She reported her disappearance to the police, she said, but she couldn't easily access a trained translator and felt her case wasn't being taken seriously.
The teen returned home after three days.
According to Linda, her daughter was struggling to adjust to life in America after she arrived along with the 2014 wave of Central American children fleeing gang and domestic violence. The family had arrived on a visa granted for victims of crime.
Linda said her daughter hung out with other recent immigrants at Brentwood High School, a group that – advocates say – has been subject to intimidation by MS-13 gang members looking for recruits.
MS-13, known for its unspeakable violence, started in Los Angeles in the 1980s and surfaced in Long Island during a Central American immigration wave during the 1990s. Linda and others in the community expressed concern that their children are being exploited and threatened by these gangs that are targeting youth who are new to the country.
Linda’s daughter went missing in spring, the same time parents of other girls and boys reported their children missing. Unaware of where the girls went and why, the community was buzzing with anxiety. But the police weren’t acting as concerned, Linda said, adding that they told her simply to wait for a few days.
She recalled struggling to find a detective who could speak Spanish and translate accurately.
“I felt like if these were white students or if this is going on in another community perhaps communication with police would be different,” Linda recalled.
Linda, along with representatives from Sepa Mujer, a Latina advocacy group that has been involved in community outreach with the police department, met with Commissioner Sini to discuss the difficulties she had communicating with officers about her case.
After that meeting, officers called her immediately and took her daughter’s statement.
“I got results because I was with an advocacy group,” Linda said. “What will happen to the rest of the community that doesn’t have that access?”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.