The U.S. Justice Department has called on Suffolk County police to strengthen efforts to combat hate crimes, faulting procedures and pointing to warning signs that preceded the 2008 killing in Patchogue of immigrant Marcelo Lucero.
In a letter to County Executive Steve Levy released Wednesday, the department said "we strongly urge" the county to adopt its recommendations, which include a revamp of practices that have hurt relations with Hispanics and a better system for investigating misconduct complaints against police.
The letter, offering assistance to Suffolk police, came more than two years after the launch of a federal probe into the county's handling of hate crimes against Latinos, as well as community complaints in the aftermath of the Lucero killing of bias in policing.
"Bias-driven behavior, even if it does not rise to the level of a hate crime, can be significant, and it should be addressed. Unchecked, it can develop into serious hate crimes, as evidenced by the events preceding the death of Marcelo Lucero," the letter said.
The inquiry is continuing to determine whether Suffolk police have violated constitutional or civil rights of Hispanics, according to sources.
Levy, in a statement responding to the letter, said, "Some recommendations are constructive and will be implemented, many others we are already doing, and some we disagree with."
Advocates for Latinos said the report confirmed Suffolk's shortcomings. Citing "a political climate that is anti-immigrant," Luis Valenzuela of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance said the police "didn't have clear procedures to respond to these challenges."
While the Justice Department letter says Suffolk police have made improvements, it is decidedly heavier on calls for change than on kudos. The 28-page letter contains more than 100 recommendations and admonitions on how the department can improve its practices.
Among the concerns:
Inconsistent reporting and tracking of hate crimes.
A failure to adequately instruct officers to understand what hate crimes are.
Police not keeping complainants in hate crime cases up to date on developments.
Hurdles to public reporting of alleged officer misconduct.
A need for a more effective Internal Affairs Bureau in the department.
The report also urged:
Revised procedures for roadblocks and sobriety checkpoints in Hispanic communities to ensure that officers inspect only for specific illegal conduct. Allegations that they have been used to conduct random checks for undocumented immigrants remain under investigation.
More training to promote familiarity with other cultures.
Enhanced community policing efforts.
Suffolk police policy and instructional documents contain "vague and inconsistent" guidance on hate crimes, the letter states. One example: The material does not make clear that youths can be charged with hate crimes.
"The tendency to brush off attacks as 'just kids being kids' fails to recognize the severity of criminal conduct in which minors may engage, as seen from the murder of Marcelo Lucero, whose attackers were high school-aged youths," the letter states.
Lucero, 37, was attacked by a gang of youths in a train station parking lot and stabbed to death. Prosecutors said the assailants had been regularly attacking and beating up Latinos for more than a year.
Jeffrey Conroy of Medford is serving 25 years in prison for killing Lucero.
Suffolk Police Department Deputy Chief Christopher Bergold said he welcomed the input from the Justice Department and that several of the suggestions have been implemented.
In response to Justice's call for officers to be better equipped to classify incidents as hate crimes, Bergold said that's not their job. Rather, they are taught to recognize possible elements of bias and then refer cases to experts -- specially trained detectives in the department's Hate Crimes Unit.
"The default is to forward anything with an element of bias or hate," Bergold said. "It's really important to note that the Suffolk County Police Department is one of only a few dozen nationwide with a dedicated hate crimes unit."
He defended the department's outreach efforts to the Hispanic community, noting it has added Spanish-speaking 911 operators, and that all new police recruits are given basic Spanish instruction. The department also provides 45 hours of cultural sensitivity training, he said, while the state requires only five hours.
Bergold said forms that allow the public to file complaints against officers are now available on the Internet, in libraries and at community meetings. Internal Affairs, he said, has hired a bilingual investigator.
Said Levy: "With the many reforms we have made over the last few years, we are likely far ahead of other like counties."
Levy spokesman Mark Smith took issue with some concerns raised in the letter, saying in a statement that roadblocks have never been used to check immigration status and have been well-received and even asked for in communities.
Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Central Islip), one of two Latinos on the County Legislature, agreed that improvements have been made since Lucero's killing, but he said the letter makes evident, "We're not there yet. . . . We need to do more."
Jeff Frayler, head of the Suffolk PBA, said that overall, the letter was fair and points out weaknesses that need to be corrected. He agreed that it's essential for police to take hate activity by youths seriously.
"Every now and then a kid may make a wild threat and you don't want to ignore it -- especially in light of the Lucero killing," Frayler said.
With Kery Murakami, Robert E. Kessler, Bart Jones, Victor Manuel Ramos and Andrew Smith