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Cartagena: Rethink Suffolk-Justice Dept. deal

Marcelo Lucero, 37, shown on Nov. 10, 2008,

Marcelo Lucero, 37, shown on Nov. 10, 2008, was beaten and stabbed to death by seven teenagers in Patchogue. Photo Credit: Handout

Achieving racial justice is a critically important -- yet challenging -- task, and the agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Suffolk County is a crucial step forward. But it's not enough.

The accord seeks to change policies and practices of the Suffolk County Police Department that led to its failure to investigate crimes committed against Latinos and to its general hostility toward Latinos. That attitude simply paralleled that of former County Executive Steve Levy from the time he took office in 2004.

Those policies helped convey to the young men who fatally stabbed Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue five years ago that it was safe to assault Latinos because police wouldn't investigate. As one of the young men said, they did not go out hunting for Latinos to rob often -- just a few times a week. Yet they never got caught in the pursuit of their pastime, a pattern that stopped, for these seven at least, with Lucero's killing.

To develop a remedy for any problem, it's crucial to identify the specific details of what the problem is. Unfortunately, this settlement -- which in part requires that Suffolk police increase diversity training and issue annual reports on hate crime trends -- does not do that. Dozens of victims described to federal and county investigators the crimes they suffered, the reports they made to police, the absence of any indication that police ever investigated. Yet, unlike many other DOJ reports, this one made no findings of fact about what went wrong inside the police force. Nor did it seek to reopen cases that went uninvestigated. The absence of this information deprives Latinos of the ability to understand what went wrong and to assess how effective this settlement will be in protecting them against future abuses.

The absence of fact-finding also deprives county residents of what could have been a critical learning moment. No one would dispute that the growing presence of Latinos in Suffolk County has evoked passions of every sort. But only the disclosure of what really went wrong with Suffolk police can lead all of us to understand the burdens and abuses Latinos face and of the need for reform.

No one would contend that an individual who is brutally assaulted because of ethnicity or race is not entitled to a full investigation by the police. Yet that is what has too often happened, allowing perpetrators to walk free. Nor are the abuses within the force as prevalent as some might fear. In fact, we know many police officers who are dedicated to solving crimes, regardless of the victim's background. But without the public disclosure of what went on, this unique opportunity for reconciliation of those opposing views will vanish.

Thus, we propose that Suffolk County and the Department of Justice enter into a second agreement. That accord would supplement the first and should direct the police, under DOJ oversight, to: 1) thoroughly investigate unsolved crimes against Latinos and immigrants since 2004, 2) establish why there is a pattern of failure to investigate the crimes effectively, 3) issue a report on its findings, and 4) provide for effective monitoring in the future.

We at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a non-profit advocacy group, know that what we seek would impose a burden on Suffolk County, its police and DOJ, but it would be worth it. These steps would bring justice to those who have not obtained it and would continue the important process of reconciliation so desperately needed.

As the county legislature prepares to vote on the agreement, as early as Tuesday, we hope lawmakers will debate vigorously whether it makes sense now to vote yes on this incomplete accord. They should explore ways to make the agreement better -- for all the people of Suffolk County.

Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Manhattan non-profit.