Heidi Beirich is the director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she studies hate and extremism.
In a January 22 Newsday column, Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks, the longtime commander of the Suffolk County Police Department Hate Crimes Unit, made explosive allegations that Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy had whitewashed bias crimes and directly inhibited the work of the hate crimes unit.
Two weeks before unleashing the allegations, Reecks had been pushed out of his leadership role with the hate crimes unit, relegated to second-in-command.
Reecks told Newsday that his unit was unable to aggressively pursue its mission – solving hate crimes – because of mandates that Levy issued after taking office in 2004.
The former hate crimes unit commander said that Levy changed how the department handled investigations: “They came in and they started to shut it down,” he told Newsday, “all of a sudden it was, no, you are not doing that, no, that is not a hate crime.”
Levy’s tampering extended to press relations, according to Reecks, and officials from the county executive’s administration scrubbed releases of terms related to hate crime, hampering the ability to generate leads on such crimes.
Reecks also claims that Levy tried to exert his influence regarding an ongoing Justice Department investigation into discriminatory policing against Latinos in Suffolk County. According to the former hate crimes unit commander, the Levy administration tried to pressure him not to speak to Justice Department officials without a representative of the county executive present. Reecks ultimately spoke to officials on his own.
For those of us at the Southern Poverty Law Center, it’s not surprising to hear allegations that Levy hasn’t taken hate crime seriously.
In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.,” a report that documented widespread attacks against Latinos in the county, many of which were never investigated by law enforcement.
Latinos in Suffolk County, both documented and undocumented, were subjected to taunts and harassment, as well as violence, the report found. Latino residents spoke of being run off the road while riding bicycles, pelted by objects from cars, and even attacked with baseball bats.
Many Latinos interviewed would not walk alone after dark, and parents often refused to let their children play outside.
The Southern Poverty Law Center report rightly blamed Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy for fostering an environment hostile to Latino immigrants, dubbing Levy the “enabler-in-chief.”
As we noted in our report, Levy’s anti-Latino track record is long.
In 2004, he proposed that Suffolk County police officers be empowered to detain Latinos solely on suspicion of being undocumented immigrants and turn them over to federal authorities for deportation. Police unions blocked the proposal, arguing that it would compromise public safety by making immigrants all the more wary of providing information about criminal activity.
In June 2005, Levy oversaw zoning violation raids on 11 houses in Farmingville and the eviction of 200 Latino day laborers and their family members. He then refused to meet with immigrant-rights advocates. “I’m not one who’s going to be intimidated by their antics or marches,” he said. “Bring it on.”
Later that month, Levy mocked demonstrators who protested the raids. “I will not back down to this one percent lunatic fringe,” he said. “They evidently do not like me much because I am one of the few officials who are not intimidated by their politically correct histrionics.”
In a 2006 speech, he referenced a rising plague of “anchor babies” – children born in the US to undocumented immigrants—and asserted that Southampton Hospital was on the verge of closing its maternity ward because of the births. The ward remained open and hospital officials denied Levy’s claims.
In 2007, The New York Times interviewed Levy about his support for local ordinances designed to drive undocumented immigrants out of the county.
“People who play by the rules work hard to achieve the suburban dream of the white picket fence,” Levy told the newspaper. “If you live in the suburbs, you do not want to live across the street from a house where 60 men live. You do not want trucks riding up and down the block at 5am, picking up workers.”
Given this track record, the recent allegations by Det. Sgt. Reecks need to be examined closely. If true, Levy’s actions prove once again that the county executive has truly been the “enabler-in-chief” of the anti-Latino environment that has developed in Suffolk on his watch.