SCPD taking steps to revamp on bias crimes

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber, at Yaphank

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber, at Yaphank Police Headquarters. (July 24, 2012) (Credit: James Carbone)

A key job for Suffolk's new police commissioner, Edward Webber, could be to deal with the potential of an order from the U.S. Department of Justice on policing Latino residents.

Federal officials are still reviewing allegations of discriminatory policing against Hispanics in the wake of the 2008 killing of Marcelo Lucero.

This week, the New Orleans Police Department and the federal government reached a sweeping agreement to revamp that scandal-ridden force. Could Suffolk face something similar down the line?

Not likely, because Suffolk, beginning under former County Executive Steve Levy, began implementing changes in how police deal with Hispanic residents, Webber said Wednesday.

"We implemented most of the suggestions they gave us before the county got the letter and more after the letter was received," Webber said, referring to a September 2011 recommendation letter from DOJ's civil rights division.

Among the changes: Police officers have been trained to better recognize potential bias crimes, and to call in the department's hate-crime unit when necessary. In addition, hate-crime reports are compiled, followed up and stored in a central location.

One of the many complaints that advocates for Latino residents lodged with federal officials was that Suffolk police did not take, properly categorize or adequately follow up hate-crime-related reports.

In last year's letter, the federal government noted that it had not yet made any formal findings in its ongoing investigation into the Suffolk department.

And Webber said police have not heard from the justice department since County Executive Steve Bellone assumed office in January. Wednesday, a spokesman for DOJ's civil rights division in Washington declined to comment on the status of its investigation.

Unlike New Orleans, there were no allegations of misconduct by Suffolk police officers. The problem, according to the DOJ letter, was that the department had inadequate systems in place to gather or track, much less solve, alleged crimes against Latinos.

The lack of policies blinded the department to a series of assaults against Latinos that culminated in Lucero's stabbing death. In response to the DOJ letter, the Levy administration in November submitted a 60-page reply that included details of newly enacted policies, along with a few disagreements about the DOJ's preliminary findings.

Webber said the department's ongoing outreach to Latinos -- and all Suffolk residents -- will be bolstered by its new push for so-called enhanced community policing. And as for the response from the Latino community, Webber said, "I think it's positive."

Luis Valenzuela, of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, agreed. "The tone that has been set by this administration is totally different," said Valenzuela, who went from criticizing police a year ago to being invited to march with Bellone, Webber and other administration officials at last week's Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade.

"There are still a few bumps in the road, but I think they are trying to reach out," Valenzuela said. "We expect to see improved relations between police and aspiring Americans and the Latino community."