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DOJ report: Suffolk makes policing improvements, work must continue

The Justice Department's findings mark the first time in nearly five years of monitoring tied to the police department's interactions with the Latino community that it has been found in "substantial compliance" in major categories it is tracking.

The patch of the Suffolk County Police Department.

The patch of the Suffolk County Police Department. Newsday photo by John Keating. police patch emblem logo Photo Credit: NEWSDAY STAFF/John Keating

The U.S. Department of Justice has determined that the Suffolk County Police Department has made substantial progress in two critical areas related to its interactions with the Latino community, but needs to continue to work on three other categories to be in full compliance with a settlement agreement mandating reforms following the hate-crime killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant a decade ago.

The Justice Department’s findings mark the first time in nearly five years of monitoring that the police department has been found in “substantial compliance” in any of the major categories being tracked: bias-free policing, hate crimes and hate incidents, language assistance, allegations of police misconduct and community engagement.

The Oct. 11 report says the police department reached substantial compliance — the highest ranking — in the areas of hate crimes and hate incidents, allegations of police misconduct, as well as the separate category of general policies and training as part of an assessment of the department’s progress in the first six months of this year. The department is in “partial compliance” in the other categories but the report warned there remains “a persistent mistrust” between the community and the police.

The police department declined an interview request Wednesday. But Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, who assumed the top cop role in April, said in a written statement that the department “continues to make significant progress” toward full compliance with the agreement.

“The relationships with the communities that we serve are of paramount importance and are essential to the success and viability of the Suffolk County Police Department,” Hart said. “Without our community partners, we wouldn’t be able to serve our residents and fight crime to the best of our abilities. Since becoming Commissioner, I made it a top priority to further build upon this department’s success to foster such relationships. In the last six months, as indicated in the October report, this department has taken meaningful steps and has been proactive in a variety of areas.”

The police department and DOJ entered into the settlement agreement in January 2014, in response to complaints from advocates over how the department interacted with the Latino community following the November 2008 killing of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant, who at the age of 37, was fatally beaten by a group of teenagers in Patchogue.

The federal monitoring was supposed to last three years, but has continued because the police department has not made all of the necessary reforms. The report is the seventh assessment since the monitoring agreement was put into place.

Some advocates in the Latino community who have complained to DOJ monitors about the police department’s practices said Wednesday that the report’s findings were surprising and not reflective of the stories they hear from immigrants who complain that police are disrespectful in their interactions and fail to provide translation services.

“While they’ve made some progress in meeting the technical requirements, there’s no doubt that they still have a ways to go in really approaching the Latino community in a holistic manner,” said Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Walter Barrientos, a consultant for the Brentwood-based immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, said while the DOJ monitoring has been “a force for good and change,” and the police department may have made some strides “on paper,” the average Latino immigrant still receives poor treatment from police.

Barrientos said other issues regarding the Latino community’s interaction with the police that have emerged in the last few years, such as the handling of cases of missing Latino youth and the classification of minors as gang members, are not addressed in the report.

“We’re just deeply concerned if anyone has the notion that the Suffolk County Police Department is ready to fly on its own,” Barrientos said.

The DOJ did not provide answers to detailed questions from Newsday Wednesday, but DOJ spokeswoman Kelly Laco said in an emailed statement: “As part of the 2014 settlement agreement, if DOJ finds misconduct, it has the ability to pursue appropriate legal action in court. DOJ is committed to protecting public safety, while at the same time ensuring the protection of civil rights. We will continue to encourage the ethical, constitutional, and effective policing required to keep Americans safe.”

As part of its assessment, monitors from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division have reviewed internal affairs investigations, as well as toured precincts and did ride-alongs with on-duty police officers and had meetings with top police officials, including Hart, and community activists.

The report says the department has made significant progress in combating biased policing. “While there is still a significant amount of work that remains to ensure compliance with this portion of the Agreement, in the last six months the Department has taken meaningful steps to put itself on the right track.”

The report notes there remains a “persistent mistrust” of the department, although it has developed a “robust approach” to engaging the community since 2014 and is “very close” to being in substantial compliance. The report says the department has created new positions in headquarters and in precincts to coordinate community-police interactions, including holding regular community meetings. But the report says that advocates and the issues they raise are still ignored by the police.

“While SCPD leadership has taken several commendable initiatives that we have noted in this and other reports, these initiatives may not have sufficiently filtered down to precinct officers,” the report says. “Our conversations with community members continue to reveal a persistent mistrust of SCPD.”

The report also cites the department’s failure to fully implement a language access plan, provide translated forms and documents on its website and the continued reports of non-English speakers claiming they received rude treatment from officers, particularly at the front desks of police precincts.

But the report, in outlining how the department had reached partial compliance in language access, says the department had recently hired a data analyst for its DOJ compliance efforts and cited its pilot program giving officers tablets through which the department’s Language Line can be accessed.

It’s unclear when the tablets will be distributed departmentwide, but DOJ monitors said the department should prohibit officers from using their personal cellphones to access Language Line.

Cheryl Keshner, senior paralegal and community advocate for the Empire Justice Center in Central Islip and coordinator for the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition, said while the department has developed policies, the implementation needs work.

“We hear from community members who are not …being treated in a respectful manner,” said Keshner.

The report also identifies the collection and analysis of traffic-stop data, which has been a “significant challenge” for the department, as an important metric for measuring bias-free policing. While the launch of a system to analyze traffic-stop data failed in 2017, the department launched a new system in April, which monitors called a “considerable step forward.” The department has committed to analyze a year’s worth of the data and make it available to the public, the report says.

Hart, in her statement added: “The department will continue to further strengthen our relationship with all of our community partners, and looks forward to ensuring additional compliance in the coming months with the ultimate goal of attaining full compliance.”

Progress report

The U.S. Department of Justice provides a compliance rating for each of the major categories relating to the settlement with the Suffolk County Police Department.  "Substantial compliance" means the county has achieved the designated goals.  "Partial compliance" means the county has achieved some success on some components but significant work remains to be done. The latest report rates the progress as follows:

Bias-free policing: Partial compliance.

Hate crimes and hate incidents: Substantial compliance.

Language assistance: Partial compliance.

Allegations of police misconduct: Substantial compliance.

Community engagement: Partial compliance.

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