Some police officials have indicated shock at the level of anger directed against the police over the last week. While the current protests were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the anger within communities of color has been seething for years. In my work with CARECEN and the New York Immigration Coalition I have tried to push for changes within the Nassau and Suffolk police departments to make them more accountable and accessible to immigrant communities. While there have been some accomplishments from these efforts, I want to discuss one that led to widespread alienation.
In 2018, I was working with other advocates to remove ICE from the Nassau County Jail. The County Executive and the Sheriff, along with the Police Commissioner were won over to endorsing this move. Several law enforcement unions, including the powerful Nassau PBA were in contract negotiations with the county for pay raises. The leadership of the unions decided to use racial prejudice to score points against County Executive Laura Curran.
The PBA had a truck fitted out with a digital billboard roll through the streets of Nassau dispplaying images of Latino men with MS-13 tattoos and identifying Curran as a friend of the notorious gang. After using these racist images, the sign changed to one placing the police on the side of ICE. This was during the worst days of abuse of immigrants by ICE and the Border Patrol. At a meeting of the county legislature that week, the spokesman for the corrections’ officers union launched into a broadly racist tirade which ended with his saying “if you want to know what your county will look like in ten years, look at who is in your jail now.” Later on the head of the Nassau PBA said that his officers needed a “tank” to go into the mostly Black and Latino village of Hempstead.
Police commissioners and chiefs represent the political leaders of the counties. They speak in terms of progress and reconciliation. The law enforcement union presidents were elected by the rank and file to represent the views of the cops. In a matter of just a few months, these leaders undid much of the trust the commissioners had built up. If the union presidents could use such racially divisive rhetoric, what, many Latinos wondered, were the police they encountered thinking.