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New orders help police relate to non-English speakers

Suffolk police have issued orders designed to smooth the department's relationship with non-English speaking residents, and launched a new program in which an outside mediator can help resolve low-level complaints against officers.

The directives come as federal investigators began interviews for a probe into the department's handling of crimes committed against Latinos and allegations that immigrants were discouraged from making complaints.

Investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice spent much of last week conducting interviews "with staff and officers of every rank" and will likely return for more in the next few months, Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said.

The inquiry was prompted by a complaint from a Latino advocacy group filed shortly after the killing of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant fatally stabbed in Patchogue in November 2008 in what authorities called a hate crime by a group of local young men.

The directives outline how officers should use interpreters, notify the public of language assistance options, and provide written materials in languages other than English.

There will a new manual section called "Persons with limited English proficiency," and separate orders require officers to take a class titled "Simple Spanish Commands for Police Officers 2010." The order requires officers to log how they tried to bridge communication gaps with non-English speakers.

Dormer said the non-English speaking language orders were "directly related" to the federal probe and a meeting held with investigators last fall.

He said the mediation was not a result of the probe but had been planned for several months. It will be done by a Community Mediation Center, a civilian group already working with the county.

It will not be available for people with serious allegations involving excessive force, or for incidents that resulted in injuries, arrests or property damage. Mediators "do not decide right or wrong, or impose any decision or finding," according to the department.

Meanwhile, federal investigators completed a round of interviews last week. A department "resource officer" sat in on some and a small number of officers asked to speak with investigators alone. "This was not an interrogation, it was not confrontational," Dormer said.

Asked to comment on the federal probe, Suffolk Executive Steve Levy released a statement, saying, "I can only surmise that their investigation has shown that this is a very professional department that does not discourage any victims from reporting a crime, regardless of their ethnicity or documented status."

The investigation is likely to last a year or longer.

Participants in the mediation program must agree to it and sign a confidentiality agreement stating that information conveyed in the process cannot be used in a legal proceeding.People who agree to mediation still have the option of filing a formal complaint with the department's Internal Affairs Bureau.

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