Justice Department to Suffolk: Police Policies Make Latinos Vulnerable to Discrimination

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Inadequate police policies and procedures in Suffolk County have impeded the county’s ability to serve Latino residents, and, in some instances, leave the county vulnerable to lawsuits, according to a letter released today by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The letter, sent to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, offers the first glimpse at what the Justice Department discovered during its more than two-year investigation into discriminatory policing against Latinos in Suffolk. The federal inquiry was sparked by the 2008 hate-slay of Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue and the multitude of similar attacks that became public shortly thereafter.

The letter sends an unspoken message to the county: Remedy problems with hate crime policing and language access or face a potential lawsuit from the federal government.

Levy and District Attorney Thomas Spota have not yet responded to a request for comment by Newsday.

In the letter, the Justice Department criticized the police policy related to questioning crime victims or witnesses about immigration status, an explicit example of a policy that could lead to discrimination against Latinos:

SCPD policy and procedure prohibits officers from questioning witnesses and victims about their immigration status but requires SCPD officers to question a person arrested for a crime regarding his or her immigration status, regardless of the charge, “when there is reason to believe” that the arrestee is an “undocumented person.”  Chapter 16, section 4.  Specifically, the policy section of Chapter 16, Section 4 states the following:

When there is reason to believe that an individual arrested for a criminal offense may be an undocumented person, the Police Department is responsible for alerting federal immigration officials, the prosecuting attorney, and the judiciary. While enforcement of immigration laws is primarily a federal responsibility, State, County and local law enforcement agencies necessarily and appropriately should inquire about a person’s immigration status under certain circumstances (emphasis added).

This policy is too vague and offers little or no guidance on how to determine whether there is reason to believe that an individual is an “undocumented person.” Without more clarification, this policy is vulnerable to abuse and exposes SCPD to allegations of racial profiling and potential legal action for discrimination on the basis of national origin.

Issues like language access and hate crime reporting are addressed in the letter, as well.

Read the full letter here:


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