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Editorial: New rules for Suffolk Police set solid goals

Joselinne Marca, 13, of Patchogue and Joselo Lucero

Joselinne Marca, 13, of Patchogue and Joselo Lucero joined family, friends and neighbors for the 5th anniversary of the death of Marcelo Luce, of Patchogue, who was murdered in what is believed to be a hate crime. (Nov. 9 2013) Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

Five years ago, Marcelo Lucero was stabbed to death in Patchogue by seven teens who targeted him because he was Hispanic. Even had that horrible incident never happened, the steps the Suffolk County Police Department has now agreed to take to assure its force is unbiased and responsive to all are wise and worthy ones.

The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division suggested in a 2011 letter that there were shortcomings in the Suffolk department's relations with non-English speakers as well as how it classified and investigated potential hate crimes.

The letter, spurred by the Lucero killing but augmented with reports of other attacks on Latinos by teens that were never investigated, suggested more than 100 improvements. There also was evidence uncovered during the Justice Department's investigation that some immigrants were scared to report crimes, hate crimes were mischaracterized and the department interacted poorly with non-English speakers.

Even if the report was never delivered, the procedural changes the Justice Department asked for in an agreement with Suffolk County made public this week are moves that would improve any department.

After years of investigating and negotiating, the county legislature must accept the agreement, which includes:

Disciplining of officers who engage in discriminatory policing

Reporting civilian complaints regarding discrimination to Justice regularly, along with traffic-stop data reports and departmental self-assessments

Mapping patterns of hate crimes

Making forms, operators and officers available in languages other than English

Holding regular meetings between high-ranking cops and minority groups

Ensuring complete access to the department's staff, facilities and records for Justice officials

County officials say many of these procedures already have become standard. The legislature should affirm this deal and its protocols in running the department and not just for the 1-3 years of the agreement.

What happened to Lucero, who was originally from Ecuador, was heartbreaking and brutal. The federal investigation made clear that not enough was being done by Suffolk cops to prevent, investigate and punish such incidents. Just as important, it showed a department that, because it didn't have many officers fluent in other languages, wasn't always well-equipped to do the kind of questioning that gets the information needed to catch and convict those responsible.

It's important to note that Justice has never accused Suffolk police of hiding crimes or refusing to pursue cases where evidence pointed to a crime. However, oversight agreements like the one between Justice and Suffolk police are not common, and the county's willingness to accept the deal shows it knows the department's practices were flawed.

This isn't about a turf war between Suffolk cops and the federal government, and it's not about a political war between those whose viewsdiffer on immigrants, those here legally and those here illegally.

This is about having a professional, unbiased department that protects those in its jurisdiction. The improvements laid out in this agreement can only help with that goal.