Bellone: Suffolk police reform is promise fulfilled
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Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone knew when he took office last year that he'd have to deal with a U.S. Justice Department investigation into allegations of discriminatory policing against Latinos in the county.
"What was going on in the past, with rhetoric and policies, was harmful," Bellone said in an interview Wednesday, referring to the international attention and Justice Department investigation following the 2008 stabbing death of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant.
"Having people around the country looking at Suffolk County and thinking this was a place of intolerance was harmful to our county," Bellone said. "I knew I had to end this."
Bellone had made reform of the police department an issue during his campaign for office in 2011. He said Suffolk needed more "community policing," which relies on strong ties between the police and residents -- which many Suffolk neighborhoods lacked even before Lucero's death in Patchogue.
Bellone and GOP opponent Angie Carpenter made local history by agreeing to the first-ever county executive candidate debate in a majority black and Latino community, Central Islip.
Bellone won the race handily, and it was six months into his administration before he heard from the Justice Department.
That came after Bellone appointed his police commissioner, Edward Webber, along with Suffolk's first black woman deputy commissioner, Risco Mention-Lewis, a former Nassau County prosecutor with exceptional skill in building relationships between law enforcement and minority communities.
From there, the administration and the Justice Department began months of settlement negotiations that had been started by Bellone's predecessor, Steve Levy.
Federal officials praised Levy and Bellone this week for beginning to change the police department. They said that in Bellone, they found a more willing partner.
"Fundamentally, these are things I wanted to do but in the end it was something of a collaboration," Bellone said.
He felt it essential to reach an agreement rather than potentially ending up in a federal court.
"I'd rather Suffolk County not be under federal monitoring, but unfortunately what happened in the past led to issues that had to be resolved," Bellone said. "Being in an investigation like this, it's the kind of thing that can turn real ugly real fast."
The proposed settlement for Suffolk, which includes up to three years of federal monitoring, is a first for a Long Island police department.
Bellone said his intent early on was to signal to federal investigators that policies in Suffolk had changed. Under Bellone, Suffolk became the first suburban county in New York State to agree to provide translators and translated materials to immigrants.
According to a report released last month, reported hate crimes in Suffolk have jumped -- an increase Bellone attributed to changes in how police cataloged such crimes. "We wanted our numbers to be correct, to accurately reflect what is going on in our county," Bellone said.
Bellone said Wednesday he was relieved the yearslong federal investigation will be resolved.
"This change in rhetoric and in policy was needed," Bellone said, noting that the county's infrastructure on handling hate crimes extends, as the proposed pact requires, beyond Latinos to all county residents.
"It benefits Suffolk County," Bellone said. "It lifts us all."