Suffolk police settlement: Something to build on
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Suffolk County police likely will become the largest on a short list of suburban departments to fall under federal monitoring for allegations of discriminatory policing against Latinos should lawmakers approve an agreement released Tuesday.
That's not something to be proud of. But it is something an increasingly diverse Suffolk can build from.
Suffolk lawmakers ought to agree to a settlement negotiated between the county and the federal government. It will bring an end to a long, sad chapter in Suffolk's history when there was almost an open season on attacking Latino immigrants.
Some attacks were verbal, in public places including the floor of the Suffolk Legislature. Others were physical. In Patchogue, Mayor Paul Pontieri agreed to a request by immigrants to put a village car outside the library to watch over residents as they left programs. He was stunned to learn later that immigrants were afraid of being attacked -- rather than walking home in the dark, as he had assumed.
An offensive term for a game of seeking out Latinos to beat up came up during the murder trials of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero's attackers. Before then, no one seemed to know what was happening to Latinos in Suffolk. Those who asked were told either that immigrants refused to report attacks or that police had no documentation of any pattern of violence against Latinos.
The U.S. Justice Department stepped in to investigate at the request of Latino Justice and other organizations after Lucero's murder in 2008. In 2011, Justice officials sent Suffolk a 61-page letter detailing some of its findings and recommendations for change. Then-County Executive Steve Levy challenged their assertion that Suffolk was not accurately or correctly reporting hate crimes.
The late Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks, who was head of Suffolk's hate crime unit, disagreed publicly, saying the police department for years had gone out of its way to avoid classifying incidents as hate crimes.
In its letter, the Justice Department appeared to agree with Reecks. At one point Justice recommended that Suffolk police do away with the classification "Youth Disturbance," which was applied to incidents including one where a teenager fired a BB gun into a Laundromat at an immigrant.
The flawed classification didn't just minimize the attack, but prevented police from recognizing a pattern of teenagers attacking Latinos, the letter said.
"Our example is not hypothetical, but rather taken from the facts before the death of Marcelo Lucero . . . ," the letter states. "As you will recall, after the death of Mr. Lucero, other Latino men came forward and claimed that they had been attacked (glass bottles thrown at them, being harassed, or having BB guns shot at them) by the same teenagers. One Latino man in particular claimed that he had been shot at by youths with a BB gun on the same evening and alleged that SCPD had called the incident a "disturbance."
The police department, under current County Executive Steve Bellone, continued negotiations with federal officials. Tuesday's proposed agreement, which was handled by U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch's office, was the result.
It is important because it will help foster a top-to-bottom change in department culture, result in crimes being properly classified and make the growing Latino community a formal part of Suffolk's community policing effort.