Suffolk leaders to vote on police reforms

Marcelo Lucero, 37, shown on Nov. 10, 2008, Marcelo Lucero, 37, shown on Nov. 10, 2008, was beaten and stabbed to death by seven teenagers in Patchogue. Photo Credit: Handout

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The Suffolk County Legislature is to vote as early as Dec. 17 on comprehensive police reforms that a federal official said seek nothing less than a cultural change in the approach toward minority communities.

Lawmakers will decide whether to adopt the pact with the U.S. Department of Justice to address discrimination concerns stemming from the 2008 stabbing death of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue.

The agreement's expected passage will make Suffolk one of the largest suburban police forces under federal oversight.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Wednesday he expected "some additional costs, mostly for training" but did not yet see a need for additional hires to meet the requirements of the agreement.

"We will get the policies in place," Bellone said, adding that his goal is to be free of federal monitoring after three years.

The leader of Suffolk's legislature said he expects quick approval of the pact, calling its recommendations "reasonable."

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"Every legislator, to a person, is looking to foster a positive quality of life for all Suffolk residents," said Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "So if this goes to improving that quality of life, these are important things to take care of."

Legislators are to first consider the agreement at the Dec. 12 Public Safety Committee meeting. If approved, it will go to the full legislature, as early as the next regular meeting on Dec. 17.

Legislative approval will start the clock for provisions requiring tracking of biased policing, hate crime cases and traffic stops in minority communities as well as the adoption of policies to improve relations with Latinos and offer language help to non-English speakers.

An initial progress report will be due to the Justice Department six months after the agreement is signed.

"We want to create a culture change in the department," said the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York. "We want to create an environment where to be Latino is not looked upon as something suspicious. . . . If it's a victim of a crime, that they are not looked upon somehow as second-class."

The accord was disclosed Tuesday, ending a four-year federal investigation into allegations that police ignored attacks on immigrants by individuals and groups of teens specifically looking for Latinos to harass, creating a climate of fear.

Police Commissioner Edward Webber called the agreement a "collaborative effort" with the Justice Department, while emphasizing that it did not fault police on discrimination claims.

Webber said some of the changes can be addressed by reassigning staff, but there would still be costs of about $650,000, largely for training the 2,450-member force.

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"We can't do it alone, we really have to work with everyone and that's the community leaders, the communities themselves, the businesspeople in the community, the local politicians," Webber said.

Immigrant and civil rights advocates welcomed the plan, but some raised questions about its implementation.

Foster Maer, senior attorney with the LatinoJustice PRLDF advocacy group that took complaints to the Justice Department, said his organization is concerned about reports of biased policing being handled internally, rather than by federal officials.

"From our point of view it relies too much on Suffolk County acting in good faith," he said.

Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said "the public will be watching and groups like us will keep an eye out for complaints."

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The U.S. Attorney's Office said, "we always have that hammer of enforcing it in [federal] court" if the county does not meet requirements.

With Tania Lopez,

Rick Brand and Joye Brown

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