Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

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

It doesn't take much reading between the lines of a U.S. Justice Department letter to County Executive Steve Levy to conclude that Suffolk police did not handle hate crime allegations in a speedy and professional manner.

The department left potential hate crimes classified as something less, if they were classified at all. Victims were given short shrift, without any follow-up to go over the allegations.

And by not aggressively pursuing some incidents as hate crimes, alleged perpetrators were, in effect, allowed to continue on their way.

That brings to mind the 2008 murder of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, in Patchogue by a group of young men.

Could an aggressive police department intent on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes have prevented this death?

I don't know, but it's a question worth asking.

In its 28-page letter, the Justice Department -- even as its investigation continues -- makes a series of matter-of-fact, common-sense recommendations for the Suffolk Police Department.

Among them: Officers must, first and foremost, know what a hate crime is; they must get to a suspected crime scene before victims, weary of waiting for law enforcement, walk away; they must encourage victims to report crime, follow up on complaints, and connect with the community.

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Easy stuff, really, yet absent for so long for Latinos in Suffolk County. The bottom line is that Suffolk, during a time when Latinos were being attacked and anti-immigrant fervor was at a high, avoided confronting it.

It wasn't until the Justice Department opened an investigation that Suffolk began to make significant changes in its policing methods.

With different policies in place, could Lucero, out for a night with a friend, have been spared so violent a death?

Could things have been different had Suffolk, years ago, correctly classified hate crimes?

Could something as simple as a hate-crime tracking system provided what the Justice Department called "early warning" enough to stop some Latinos from being attacked?

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Could things have been different for the racially diverse group of Suffolk teens convicted in Lucero's death had Suffolk made stopping hate crimes a priority?

These are questions worth asking.

The Justice Department letter refers specifically to attacks on Latino men by some of the Lucero defendants in the days and weeks before his murder. One of those incidents was classified by Suffolk as a "disturbance," the letter notes.

The feds suggest change, noting that offenses determined as so-called "youth disturbances" could "be a precursor to a more severe string of violence by those youths."

The Justice Department has yet to issue findings on its investigation into allegations of discriminatory policing against Latinos in Suffolk. Answers to other critical questions, like why Suffolk's policing was so unaggressive, should come when the department's investigation is complete.