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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Community’s trust essential in battling gang crime

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak with federal, state

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak with federal, state and local law enforcement about efforts to combat violent crime and restore public safety at Alfonse M. D'Amato United States Courthouse in Islip on April 28, 2017. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as expected, took a hard stand against illegal immigration during a visit to the federal district courthouse in Central Islip on Friday.

At one point, however, Sessions was asked how he would square the federal government’s desire for strict enforcement of immigration laws with the needs of local police to build trust in communities where many residents are undocumented.

That concern is key in Central Islip and Brentwood, where police say MS-13 gang members have killed 11 people — most of them teens — since September. Suffolk police repeatedly have asked for assistance from the community, stressing police policy against asking the immigration status of crime victims or potential witnesses.

The department believes that a trusting relationship with immigrants — legal and illegal — is necessary to combat crime.

Sessions, however, said he disagreed with that view.

“I think that’s an exaggerated argument, number one,” he said in answer to a question during a news conference. “Most police departments don’t follow it. The vast majority in America don’t adhere to it.”

As for reporting crime, Sessions said, “There’s still opportunities to call into 911 anonymously. And we’re not, to my knowledge, out seeking . . . witnesses to crimes to deport. I don’t think we have any examples of that. So I think the better policy is to follow the law as Congress has set forth, that basically says persons who are convicted of a crime in the United States shall be deported.”

He was clear in saying that President Donald Trump’s priority is to deport undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. And, he said, he’s been tasked by Trump to give particular attention to multinational gangs, including MS-13.

Still, after a private meeting with Sessions, the commissioners of both the Nassau and Suffolk police departments said they intended to keep in place long-standing policies that police will not ask crime victims or potential witnesses about their immigration status.

“We do not inquire as to the immigration status of any potential witness or persons with information related to any crimes,” Thomas Krumpter, Nassau’s acting police commissioner, said in an interview across the street from the courthouse, as snipers looked on from the roof of a nearby building.

“That’s the policy today; that’s the policy tomorrow,” Krumpter said. “And as long as I am the commissioner, I’m not changing it.”

Sessions came to Central Islip at the request of Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who said he extended the invitation in response to constituent questions about what the federal government could do to combat MS-13.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini — who, like Krumpter, called their meeting with Sessions “productive” — said afterward that he had asked that more federal prosecutors be assigned to anti-gang work. Sini said he also asked that the federal Long Island Gang Task Force be expanded, so he could add more police to the unit.

But Sini said he intended to keep Suffolk policy against asking witnesses, or victims, about immigration status in place.

“We have the right policies on that, and we will continue with those policies,” he said. “This scourge is preying on immigrant communities, so of course we want the assistance of undocumented communities.”

That’s the best course — the only course — local police can take, said Mark Lesko, a former Brookhaven Town supervisor who spent six years working gang cases as a federal prosecutor in Central Islip.

“You can’t do anything that has a chilling effect on the community, because the community is where you are going to get your intelligence,” said Lesko, who heads Hofstra University’s Center for Entrepreneurship.

Having a trusting relationship with legal and undocumented immigrant communities, Lesko said, “is essential for robust intelligence — like organizational structure, someone’s whereabouts, what kind of vehicle someone is driving — needed to build cases against gangs, against MS-13.”

That’s also how police, working with federal authorities, will work to solve the murders of four young men, bludgeoned to death near soccer fields in a public park.

Which is what brought Sessions, more than 100 people protesting his visit and family members of MS-13 victims to the courthouse on Friday.

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