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Federal judge allows class action status for lawsuit accusing Suffolk police of racial discrimination

The patch of the Suffolk County Police Department.

The patch of the Suffolk County Police Department. Credit: NEWSDAY STAFF/John Keating

A federal judge this week certified a lawsuit accusing the Suffolk Police Department of engaging in widespread racial discrimination against Latinos as a class action, a decision lawyers for the plaintiffs hope will lead to the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee policing in the county.

An attorney with LatinoJustice, a Manhattan-based civil rights organization that filed the lawsuit in 2015 on behalf of 21 Latinos who live in Suffolk, said the decision by U.S. District Judge William F. Kuntz will also result in the department developing — and enforcing — policies that promote equitable policing.

"Class-action status puts us in a position to force meaningful and important reforms," said Jose L. Perez, deputy general counsel for LatinoJustice who called the ruling "a major milestone."

The number of members of the class — individuals subjected to traffic or pedestrian stops since 2014, exceeds 100,000 — according to court papers.

Suffolk County officials and the police department declined to comment Wednesday, saying they could not discuss pending litigation.

On Monday, Kuntz agreed to a report and recommendation written by U.S. Magistrate Judge Lois Bloom, who ruled on March 12 that the case should proceed as a class action for purposes of injunctive relief, such as the appointment of an independent monitor or implementation of policies promoting fair policing.

Bloom denied class-action status for monetary damages, saying it would be unwieldy to conduct hearings for thousands of individuals allegedly impacted by police misconduct and poor practices.

The Suffolk County Legislature approved a police reform plan last month that officials said would curb bias among officers. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered law-enforcement agencies to submit police reform by April 1 or risk losing state funding. Cuomo’s order came after the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

Civil rights activists said the Suffolk plan did not go far enough and have argued for strong reforms, including creation of a review board that would investigate complaints of police misconduct.

Atara Miller, an attorney for LatinoJustice, said the organization could negotiate a settlement with the county or the judge could order reforms, including appointment of an independent monitor.

"That is one of our principle goals," said Miller, a partner with the Manhattan-based Milbank law firm.

The defendants in the lawsuit also include Scott A. Greene, a former Suffolk police sergeant who was accused of stopping Latino motorists in the Farmingville area and shaking them down for cash, usually $100. A Suffolk jury convicted Greene of grand larceny and other charges in 2016, and he was sentenced to one to three years in prison. Greene, who is representing himself in the case, did not return a request for comment.

According to the lawsuit, the discriminatory behavior by Suffolk police continued even after the U.S. Justice Department launched a federal investigation into the department after an immigrant from Ecuador, Marcelo Lucero, was killed by a group of teenagers in Patchogue in 2008. Suffolk police officials entered an agreement to reform its policies with the U.S. Justice Department in 2014.

Suffok police have made progress in complying with the agreement, according to a justice department report, which rated the department in "substantial compliance" in three out of six main categories.

Suffolk officials argued in court papers that Greene was a "lone wolf" and that its police department using the agreement with the justice department to reform its practices.

Suffolk police are not in full compliance with the Justice Department agreement nearly seven years later, Miller said. Enforcement of the agreement was lax during the Trump administration, he said.

"The lives of Latino residents of Suffolk County should not be subject to the whims of the federal government," Miller said.

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