Press candidates on Suffolk police reforms

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Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy discusses some facets Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy discusses some facets of the 2012 budget. (Sept. 14, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Suffolk County should adopt the recommendations of a Justice Department letter on ways to fix the systemic failures of its police department and create better relations with Latinos.

And because that job will extend beyond the term of outgoing County Executive Steve Levy, it ought to be part of the campaign for his successor right now.

During their first debate last week, Angie Carpenter and Steve Bellone, the Republican and Democrat candidates for Levy's job, both vowed to launch a professional search for a new police commissioner.

That won't be enough. The 28-page Justice Department letter's series of recommendations, including making it easier for complaints of police misconduct to be heard and strengthening procedures for identifying hate crimes, show a police department in need of reform.

David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert in police behavior and police accountability, said such recommendation letters are "a serious matter."

The current administration has said little about the recommendation letter, beyond issuing a statement and referring reporters to a police official.

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The Justice Department acknowledged that the county had implemented some of its recommendations in the letter.

On Friday, Christopher Bergold, the deputy chief of patrol, said the department had put into place even more. He said the department was open to addressing additional recommendations.

He said police would continue to willingly work with federal investigators. "Our objective is not to pacify the U.S. Justice Department," he said, "it is to provide residents with the highest level of service."

Suffolk officials have taken issue with some portions of the letter. They say that the Justice Department was mistaken when it stated that the county wasn't accurately or correctly reporting hate crimes.

The late Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks, the former head of the county police hate crime unit who resigned this year from the Suffolk Legislature's hate crimes task force, went out on a limb earlier this year to say that Suffolk went out of its way to avoid classifying incidents as hate crimes.

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The report also supports what advocates for Latinos in Suffolk have maintained -- that complaints by immigrants were being ignored by police.

Levy and police brass had been defending a system that was not working.

Can the department pass muster before Levy's term comes to an end?

That's unlikely, because the Justice Department points out too many things that are wrong.

The Justice Department, in the letter, made clear that its investigation was ongoing. Will Suffolk agree to recommendations?

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Will Justice take the next step, which could be a letter telling Suffolk to change or end up before a federal judge?

Foster Maer, senior counsel for Latino Justice PRLDEF, which pushed for the federal investigation, said that Suffolk should adopt all of the Justice Department recommendations.

"We would want Justice to make use of every avenue, including the courts, if necessary, to get that done," he said.

The fallout of Suffolk's failure will not -- and should not -- go away.

Which is why both candidates for the top job ought to be working on plans for its reform.

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