Hate crimes task force deserves more time

Suffolk police Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks resigns from

Suffolk police Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks resigns from the Suffolk County Legislature's Hate Crimes Task Force and walks out of the task force's meeting in Hauppauge on Tuesday. (Jan. 18, 2011) (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Just because Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's office could grab a draft report of the county's Hate Crimes Task Force doesn't mean that it should have. That's why the task force is right to seek legislative approval for an extension until July to complete its report and recommendations.

And why Legis. DuWayne Gregory, the task force chairman, also is seeking an outside agency to redo work done by a county group that - unbeknownst to task force members - forwarded the draft to Levy's office.

Gregory (D-Amityville), said he had asked the Southern Poverty Law Center to do the job. But the center, citing its own report - which labeled Levy "Enabler in Chief" because of his comments and actions, including an unsuccessful move to have Suffolk police enforce immigration laws - turned him down.

Now the task force is going back to private and university-based groups that had volunteered to help in the first place, Gregory said. He declined to say who they were, although he did say he was looking for a group that would do it at no charge to the county.

The dust-up over the task force's draft report began last month when Gregory found out that Levy's office had reviewed the document - which really isn't a draft report at all.

Instead, the 98-page paper was supposed to be a starting point for task force members - a summary of key issues rising from almost a year's worth of testimony and exhibits presented during hearings.

The report was prepared by staff of the county Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which is composed of county, state, town, justice system and community representatives.

Gregory said he asked the council to prepare a preliminary document because of its expertise in analyzing issues and drafting reports. He said he was surprised when he learned that the council had passed the draft report to Levy's office.

He also said - but acknowledged that he cannot prove - that Levy's office may have sanitized the council's work.

Gregory said he was surprised, for example, that the council's report included no criticism of Levy. "I sat at every hearing and that was, like, 30 or 40 percent of what we heard," he said.

Ed Dumas, Levy's chief deputy county executive, said Monday that he had reviewed the portions of the report dealing with the police department because he wanted to ensure that it was factual and included mention of the substantive changes made after the death of Marcelo Lucero. The Ecuadorean immigrant's fatal stabbing in November 2008 was classified as a hate crime.

Dumas said he made no changes, other than asking the council to add a table of contents. He said the report came to Levy's office because the 30-year-old council is part of the county probation department, which reports to Levy. He said Levy's office gets every report produced by the council.

But that doesn't mean it should have reviewed this one. The task force is supposed to be independent. And Levy - right or wrong - has borne the brunt of criticism for the lack of tolerance of illegal immigrants during the early years of his tenure.

Levy's office reviewing the draft report creates the appearance of interference - even if, as Dumas said, none was intended.

That makes a new review of the material necessary so the task force can regain some semblance of independence before members finish the report by adding its most important element - recommendations on what Suffolk should be doing to fight hate crimes.

Meanwhile, Gregory and the task force have to be thoughtful in selecting a new group to analyze testimony and exhibits.

The task force cannot afford even the appearance of a second compromised analysis. The group's work is too important, too essential for that.