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Opinion

Hate crimes panel should deliver

A poster remembers Marcelo Lucero in 2009, six

A poster remembers Marcelo Lucero in 2009, six months after his murder in Patchogue. Credit: Newsday/Ana P. Gutierrez

From the start, the Suffolk County Legislature's Hate Crimes Task Force has been controversial, entangled in the political theater of the harsh relationship between the lawmakers and the county executive. Instead of more of the same, it's time for the task force to write meaningful recommendations and publish its long-overdue report.

It was the fatal stabbing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue on Nov. 8, 2008, that inspired the task force. That horrific killing led to accusations that County Executive Steve Levy's rhetoric on immigration issues had contributed to an atmosphere of hate. And Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), himself a childhood victim of a hate crime, proposed to create a task force to examine the scope of the problem in Suffolk and do something about it.

Not everyone embraced the idea, because an ongoing task force was not likely to do much for the image of Patchogue - or for Levy, who feared that his critics in the immigration advocacy community would use it to bash him further. But the legislature voted in February 2009 to create it.

The group didn't hold the first of four scheduled public hearings until late that August, and Levy's fears turned out to be correct: Advocates did use the forum to blast him, saying Levy helped create an atmosphere hostile to Latino immigrants.

Unfortunately, neither that hearing nor those that followed it produced enough of what would have been more helpful: testimony from actual victims of hate crimes. That paucity will be a significant weakness in the ultimate report.

Recently, Gregory raised concerns that Levy's office was tampering with the draft report. But it turned out to be much ado about nothing. The task force had asked the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an agency under Levy's control, to write the draft. The council sent it to Levy's deputy, but the council says the only change made by Levy's staff was to request a table of contents for the section on police procedures.

On top of that unproductive episode, the latest distraction came this week: Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks, until recently commander of the police department's hate crimes unit, resigned from the task force - apparently miffed that, in upgrading the unit, the department put a lieutenant in command over him.

Let's not be distracted by the internal politics of the task force or the police, or by Levy-legislature skirmishes. Let's focus on shedding light on the hate crimes problem.

The draft is basically a summary of public testimony. The task force's real work will be to make compelling recommendations. The scarcity of victim testimony will make that more difficult, and the long delay in reaching a final report has made for high expectations that will be tough to meet.

But the question of hate crimes is important: How widespread are they? How can we make victims feel more willing to report them to police? Are cops doing enough? The people of Suffolk deserve some answers - soon. hN

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