Suffolk police to make 'significant changes' in dealing with minorities in DOJ settlement

Marcelo Lucero, 37, was beaten and stabbed to

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

Suffolk County police reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to overhaul policing in minority communities, capping a four-year federal investigation that followed the fatal stabbing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue.

The November 2008 death labeled a hate crime revealed allegations that Suffolk police had not fully investigated reports of other attacks by teens on Latino immigrants, triggering the 2009 probe into discriminatory policing by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

The 27-page agreement released Tuesday seeks to ensure that Suffolk provides services "that are equitable, respectful, and free of unlawful bias" by training officers, tracking hate crimes and reports of police discrimination, assigning bilingual liaison officers to the seven precincts, and meeting regularly with Latino and other immigrant community leaders.

The settlement, which does not cite errors by or specific problems in the police department or its policies, has to be approved by the Suffolk County Legislature. It is to remain in effect for at least one year and as many as three.

"This agreement represents how far Suffolk County has come since the initial investigation into the tragic death of Marcelo Lucero," County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement issued on behalf of his administration and the police department.

A spokesman for the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association did not respond to calls for comment.

The policy changes build on work "to improve relations with ethnically diverse communities, ensure language access for all Suffolk County residents, and prioritize community-led policing" for the county's 1.5 million residents, Bellone said.

Family, others want more

But Lucero's brother said addressing policy long after the attack is not enough. The Lucero family wants accountability, Joselo Lucero, 39, said.

"This has been a five-year wait for this famous investigation from the Department of Justice and they have come up with a list of ideas and nothing else," Lucero, of Bay Shore, said in Spanish. "I want to know how many people are in the list of crimes they didn't investigate as hate crimes. . . . Who was guilty in this? That's what I want to know."

Seven teens were sentenced to prison for their roles in the stabbing, but immigrant and civil rights advocates said the failure to investigate other attacks fostered a climate of fear. They hailed Tuesday's accord as progress toward better and more effective policing.

"We welcome finally some changes . . . that will address many of the concerns which we had raised over the last few years," said Foster Maer, senior counsel with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Manhattan-based advocacy group that took the allegations to federal investigators.

Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the deal "a strong step in the right direction" to protect all county residents.

In September 2011, the Justice Department issued a 28-page letter of recommendations to improve policing practices.

Key requirements for SCPD

Tuesday's final report included an extensive amount of record-keeping and reporting requirements for Suffolk police.

Among key requirements are:

Complaints of discriminatory policing are to be referred to the department's Internal Affairs Bureau for a full investigation within 48 hours. Officers found to engage in discriminatory policing are subject to disciplinary action or criminal prosecution and may be denied promotions.

Reports documenting and analyzing allegations of discriminatory policing, hate crime incidents and traffic stop data affecting minority communities are to be reported to the Justice Department.

All sworn officers are to periodically receive training on bias-free policing, hate crime cases and cultural sensitivity.

Outreach to Latino community leaders and residents is to be improved, documents are to be made available in Spanish and bilingual telephone operators are to be made available.

"All residents of Suffolk County deserve full and unbiased police protection, regardless of national origin, race or citizenship status," said Loretta Lynch, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "When people feel they cannot turn to the police for protection, they have lost one of our most basic rights -- the right to feel safe in one's community."

Luis Valenzuela, director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, which was among those pressing for the federal investigation, said implementation will be the key to the agreement. "We have been talking about common sense and community policing for many years," Valenzuela said.

Steve Levy, who was county executive at the time of the Lucero killing, criticized the agreement for its "lack of specificity" in pointing to anything that the county or police did wrong. He said his administration had put in place reforms to improve community relations and encourage crime reporting.

"You would think if there was this type of problem that the extremists were citing there would have been at least one instance cited where an officer was guilty of malfeasance or credible information was ignored," Levy said. "Not a single incident was cited where information was presented to warrant an arrest."

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) said he had not yet reviewed the document.

But, he said, "There were changes that needed to be made to make sure the department was more cognizant and more trusted by the community."

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