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Hate crimes can be stopped in Suffolk

Marcelo Lucero, who was beaten and stabbed to

Marcelo Lucero, who was beaten and stabbed to death in Patchogue in November 2008. Photo Credit: NEWSDAY/Handout

It's been more than two years since Marcelo Lucero lay dying on a Patchogue street, the victim of a brutal, racially motivated stabbing. His senseless murder stunned the people of Suffolk County, shocked the nation and galvanized many in their resolve to take action to combat hate crime.

Lucero's name continues to be used as a rallying cry -- by some, for meaningful change, but by others, for personal or political agendas well outside of the scope of improving the mechanisms for reporting hate crime and easing the suffering of victims.

This tragedy should have served as a catalyst for all to say, "Never again," but it has been exploited by some, eager to garner publicity, bereft of collaborative solutions and seeking only to point fingers. Such divisive political posturing fuels mistrust, stirs community unrest and acts to polarize those we need to conquer hate: the community, the police department and the government. Worse, it is the largest impediment to implementing viable solutions to help victims.

It's also been more than two years since the county legislature created a task force to recommend how to combat hate in Suffolk. Sadly, the task force has become entangled in political quagmires that have only delayed its own progress toward a final report -- again extended, now to June 30. We cannot afford further delay, or to deny Suffolk residents the justice and services they are entitled to, when it is in our power to do something about it today.

Hate crimes are violations of law committed against individuals or property based upon a belief or perception regarding the victims' race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, age, disability or sexual orientation -- regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct. We are all potential victims.

Hate is a powerful and resilient enemy, a cancer immune to words without decisive action. And we must accept that we may never be able to eliminate the poison of prejudice from the hearts of some, who have harbored it for so long, and prevent every hate crime. But prejudice is a learned affliction, and what is learned can be changed.

So we must seek to preserve, nurture and encourage the innocence and acceptance of our children through educational programs that teach that our real strength is in our diversity. Classrooms must be places where different religions, languages, customs, sexual orientations, skin colors and countries of origin are celebrated, and where understanding and acceptance are valued.

Those we entrust with our children must receive hate crime-prevention, diversity and sensitivity training -- this should be a requirement for teacher and administrator certification. Programs encouraging diversity and acceptance should be implemented in every school, taught and reinforced each year, from kindergarten through 12th grade. State licensed professionals such as teachers and medical providers, as well as human service agencies that contract with the government, must be required to report suspicions of hate crimes to law enforcement.

In Suffolk, a comprehensive analysis of hate crime-incident demographics must be ongoing by the county Police Department Hate Crimes Unit, to accurately plan and implement effective prevention and community education programs. Rapid demographic changes can be a precursor to neighborhood discord, and these areas should be identified and prevention initiatives and resources deployed.

We shouldn't forget the missteps of the past, but we must focus on, recognize and build upon the many positive strides that are being made by law enforcement, community organizations and government in Suffolk County. Both the executive and legislative branches have sought solutions, and law enforcement has implemented many of them to overcome barriers to reporting and provide comprehensive victims' services. Police can now communicate in more than 170 different languages. Increased community outreach and collaboration have significantly improved support for victims. Cultural diversity, sensitivity and hate crime training for police officers has been measurably enhanced and expanded.

Only by working together can we hope to foster trust and combat hate. We must look to transform the negative energy expended advancing political agendas into a positive force for the greater good, for victims today and for the children of tomorrow.

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