Suffolk panel OKs police settlement with U.S.

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Suffolk County moved a step closer to overhauling police practices in minority communities as a legislative committee Thursday approved a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to address long-standing concerns about discrimination.

The legislature's Public Safety Committee unanimously authorized the pact between police and federal officials. The 27-page document stemmed from a four-year probe that followed the 2008 fatal stabbing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, and complaints officers hadn't fully investigated reports of other attacks by teens on Latinos.

The full legislature is expected to adopt the accord Tuesday at their final meeting of 2013.

The agreement, which could remain in effect for as long as three years, requires that Suffolk police increase diversity training; assign bilingual community liaison officers to each precinct; promptly report discrimination complaints to the internal affairs bureau, and generate annual reports on traffic-stop data and hate crime trends. Police leaders also must issue regular self-assessments to the Justice Department.

"Many of the recommendations that we've agreed to, we've already voluntarily instituted, and have been doing them for some time now," Police Commissioner Edward Webber told the committee, emphasizing that the settlement listed no specific instances of discriminatory practices.

In summarizing the agreement, Webber highlighted changes to the department's Community Oriented Police Enforcement, or COPE, unit. Officers with those duties at each precinct now split time between traditional community policing and other assignments, such as coordinating traffic during large events.

The COPE unit will be divided between officers assigned solely to community policing, and those with other roles.

"We're going to really differentiate between the units," Webber told lawmakers.

Changes stemming from the agreement are estimated to cost $650,000 next year, mostly for training. Webber said he believed the department's roughly $30 million overtime fund could cover the expense.

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"We'll find the money no matter what," said Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), calling the changes in the agreement "reasonable" and "the right thing to do."

Lawmakers had few questions about the settlement, and no one on the committee criticized current police practices.

But Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), while backing police, asked Webber: "The fact the Department of Justice has to make an agreement in the first place, does that indicate a lack of transparency, or that we are not communicating effectively to the public?"

"We can always improve what we do," Webber replied. "We have outreach to do. We're building the trust of the community we serve, and it'll eliminate any misconceptions."

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