Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has worked as a reporter, an editor, newsroom administrator and editorial writer. Show More

An aggressive investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. attorney's office into allegations of discriminatory policing is just what's needed in Suffolk County.

There is too much distrust. Too much anxiety. And too many instances in which immigrants complain they are afraid to report crimes against them to police.

It's time to turn Suffolk County over and shake out the truth.

Did police routinely ignore complaints by Latinos? Or treat them in a manner that discouraged Latinos from reporting crime?

Do Suffolk's statistics on hate crimes reflect the reality of what's happening in the county? And why did allegations of repeated beatings and robberies and other crimes against Latinos stay underground for so long?

Such questions barely scratch the surface. The reality is that things were ugly in Suffolk County even before Marcelo Lucero was surrounded by what prosecutors said was a band of race-baiting local teenagers and stabbed to death, allegedly by a 17-year-old boy.

Lucero's death made things deadly ugly.

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Monday, Richard Dormer, Suffolk's police commissioner, said he welcomed federal scrutiny, too.

"It's a good thing," he said in an interview. "It gives us a chance to put to rest a lot of the myths that are out there on how we investigate hate crimes and the issue of how we respond to minorities, especially Latinos."

There is plentiful anecdotal evidence - and yes, that would include the litany of complaints compiled by the non-statistically valid report by the Southern Poverty Law Center - that appears to bolster allegations that Latinos were singled out as crime victims.

And for those who, like broken records, will say, "well they're here illegally," here's food for thought.

As far as I know, not one Latino was asked to produce proof of legal residency before being attacked in Suffolk County. On the contrary, in cases handled by the Suffolk County district attorney's office, it appears that victims became victims because they looked Latino.

In Lucero's case, some of the teenagers charged in connection with his death acknowledged they went out that evening, prosecutors said, looking to beat up Mexicans. They set upon Lucero, whose sin, apparently, was that he looked the part.

But this federal investigation is not just about complaints that Latinos are crime victims. It is about trying to answer whether police did enough to respond.

Early on, police said they did not know Latinos were being attacked because Latinos - especially those in the country illegally - do not usually go to police.

But why didn't they go to police? And what happened when they did? The Justice Department's civil rights division and the U.S. attorney's office didn't detail much about their investigation, beyond confirming that it is to "determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law" by members of the police department.

It's an assessment that's long overdue.