The U.S. Department of Justice just released a letter of recommendations for Suffolk County in its handling of hate crimes. The 28-page letter is available here. The letter is critical of the police department’s practices towards Latino crime victims and questions whether the department is carrying out its policing in accord with the Constitution. It identifies specific instances of police neglect of hate crime reports that contributed to the killing of an immigrant in Patchogue nearly three years ago.
The Justice Department began its investigation when, following the killing of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero, Long Island activists found that police were repeatedly discouraging immigrants from reporting hate crimes. The letter released today contains a preliminary set of recommendations for the county to change its practices and offers federal help for the police department to come into compliance. It also states that the investigation into Suffolk’s practices has not concluded and that comprehensive findings and recommendations will be issued later.
The letter calls Suffolk policies governing the collection and use of witness and victim immigration status information “vague.” This contradicts police claims that they have clear policies protecting immigrants cooperating with an investigation. Because Suffolk police questioned victims about their legal status, many immigrants were afraid to report crimes because of a belief that the police department would turn the information over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The letter says that under current policies, Suffolk police “may inappropriately rely on a person’s ethnicity, race, or even language” to make a determination that a person is an undocumented immigrant and subsequently report a person to immigration authorities. Latino leaders have long contended that police practices included racial profiling.
The Justice Department also criticized how Suffolk handles hate crime investigations involving victims who don’t speak English. It says that “hate crimes detectives rarely conduct in-person follow-up interview with the complainant.” In a damning passage, the letter says:
Indeed, during the course of our interviews, we spoke with victims and individuals who complained that they did not receive any form of follow-up interview by SCPD for…potential hate crimes.
The letter is also critical of the Suffolk police’s policy of classifying attacks by white youths on Latinos as “Youth Disturbances” and then not investigating them. It points specifically to an attack by some of the men who were involved in the Lucero killing. Earlier in the day they had attacked another Latino, firing a BB gun at him. Police were called to the scene but the police characterized the racially motivated attack as a “disturbance” in their report and did nothing about it. Hours later Marcelo Lucero was mortally wounded by the same young men. The letter decries the tendency of police to “brush off attacks as ‘just kids being kids.’”
The letter also discusses the long wait times for Latino victims of hate crimes for any police response. One Latino man was left injured and bleeding after an attack and waited for 30 minutes, but the police never arrived.
The Justice Department letter confirms a charge leveled four years ago by Long Island activists, including by myself, that Suffolk does not properly count hate crimes against Latinos. It says that there is “erroneous reporting” of hate crimes by Suffolk to New York State. This was obvious right after Lucero’s killing when an examination of police records indicated that none of the prior attacks on immigrants by Lucero’s killers were reported to the state as hate crimes by the Suffolk police. Under-reporting of anti-Latino hate crimes was chronic during the Steve Levy years in Suffolk.
The letter also reveals that Suffolk lied to the Department of Justice, telling the department that the county’s recent agreement to participate in Secure Communities “raised no concern” within the Latino community. The Justice Department says in the letter that this indicates a “lack of communication” because “concerns do exist.”