Why We Don’t Trust the Hate Crimes Report From Suffolk County

Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was killed in a 2008 hate crime attack.
Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero was killed in a 2008 hate crime attack.

As a result of the savage killing of Marcelo Lucero and a long-standing pattern of violence against immigrants in Suffolk County, the Suffolk County Legislature commissioned a body to investigate the problem of hate crime in the county.

Residents hoped that the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force would create an honest and comprehensive report that would accurately document the problem and its causes, and with that begin to restore trust between county government and a marginalized immigrant community.

Those hopes have been dashed.  Simply put, the task force has been a failure, hogtied from the start.

Over the course of this week, Long Island Wins will outline five of the major flaws of the task force’s work, and the reasons that Long Islanders should be skeptical of the report it will eventually issue.

While there are some very specific reasons the task force has failed, they are all rooted in a single cause: the failure of Suffolk County’s political leadership to take the problem of violence against immigrants seriously.

Long Island Wins remains committed to doing our best to fill in that accountability gap. We and all Long Islanders need hold our leaders accountable for their failures.

Reason #1

The absence of public testimony in the report by the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force

In order to find out what Suffolk residents thought about hate crime in their communities, the Hate Crimes Task Force held four public hearings in 2009, seeking testimony from Long Islanders in attendance. That testimony – some of which blasted County Executive Steve Levy for marginalizing Latino immigrants and contributing to an atmosphere of hatred – should have been incorporated into the report issued by the task force.

At a January 4 press conference, Suffolk County Legislator DuWayne Gregory, the head of the task force, alleged that swaths of public testimony were missing from a draft of the report, including any testimony that was critical of the county executive.

According to Gregory, the report was improperly waylaid and edited by the office of the county executive, which oversees the government group drafting the document. While Gregory says it’s unclear exactly what might have been taken out of the report, the draft is devoid of testimony criticizing Levy for his anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.

Levy denies making substantive changes to the report. But given that he has opposed an investigation into hate crimes from the start – about which we’ll have more to say later this week – Long Islanders have reason to be skeptical.

Hate crimes need to be taken seriously in Suffolk County. To do that, we need to hold our politicians accountable and approach the issue with a critical eye, an endeavor that we hope this series will encourage.

Check this post for updates each day of the week.

Tomorrow: What makes the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force qualified to report on this issue?

Posted February 1, 2011

Reason #2

The task force isn’t qualified to perform an investigation into hate crime.

After the death of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant attacked and killed by Suffolk teens who were out “beaner hopping,” the Suffolk County legislature created a task force to investigate hate crimes.

According to the bill, the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force would be almost entirely composed of county employees or members of county government.

Advocates from the Long Island Immigrant Alliance called for an independent consultant to advise and monitor the task force, and for an independent group to draft the group’s report, but those demands went unfulfilled.

We don’t question the integrity of task force members. But most members were placed in the position of critiquing their own employer, Suffolk County government, in the role of hate crime prevention and reporting.

In addition, the group simply wasn’t qualified to undertake this investigation.

The task force initially included a member with expertise in the legal aspects of hate crimes, Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks, the commander of the Suffolk County Police Department Hate Crimes Unit. The work of the unit wasn’t without controversy: In the ten months leading up to the Lucero killing, critics noted that the hate crimes unit had reported only one Latino-targeted hate crime.

Now, we’ve learned that even Reecks considers his work on the task force compromised. He resigned from the group a few weeks ago, and subsequently alleged that Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy hadsystematically tried to cover up hate crimes since taking office in 2004, reclassifying what constituted such a crime and rewriting press releases to remove terms related to hate crimes.

So with Reecks’ resignation, the blow to the task force was two-fold: The group lost a hate crime expert, but also learned that he hadn’t told the whole story about how such crimes were allegedly handled in Suffolk County under Steve Levy.

Many of the other task force members have experience working with minority groups, but none of them has ever organized or participated in a hate crime investigation. If the group’s foremost legal expert on hate crimes was unable or unwilling to speak openly about the subject, then we should question the quality of the group’s findings.

In contrast, the U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating allegations of discriminatory policing against Hispanics in Suffolk County, with a focus on hate crime reporting. The Justice Department has the knowledge, resources, and independence to conduct such an investigation, and the quality of their report should reflect those assets.

Likewise, it’s possible that the report by Suffolk’s task force will reflect its limitations.

Tomorrow: Was the group drafting the report by the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force co-opted by the Levy administration?

Reason #3

The group drafting a Suffolk County report on hate crime answers to the county executive – one of the people the report should be holding accountable.

From the start, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy opposed a county government investigation into area hate crimes, according to the head of the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force, a group commissioned by the Suffolk legislature to research such crimes and compile its findings in a report.

The head of the task force, Legis. DuWayne Gregory, says that Levy asked him to limit the number of public hearings on hate crimes that the task force would hold across the county, and an email sent to Gregory by Deputy County Executive Ed Dumas confirms that allegation:

In the wake of the brutal and senseless murder of Marcelo Lucero and the heightened rhetoric that marked that period, it was our belief that it was time to ratchet down the rancor and the tensions by instead working on solutions that various sectors of the community could unite behind. We thought the best way to accomplish this goal was through small meetings to encourage dialogue with various stakeholders rather than numerous public forums that we thought could perpetuate hostilities.

According to Gregory, Levy said that he was concerned that public hearings would leave him vulnerable to criticism from his enemies – those who opposed his demagoguery on immigration.

The county executive had good reason to be concerned. During the public hearings, immigrants and advocates repeatedly called out Levy for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his role in amplifying tensions in the county, and the indifference he had shown to a string of hate crimes leading up to the Lucero murder.

So when that criticism was missing from a December draft of the report by the Hate Crimes Task Force, Gregory looked to Levy’s office.

And he found answers. Gregory learned that the county government group drafting the report – the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which falls under the control of the county executive’s office – had forwarded a draft of the document to the Levy administration before showing it to the task force.

Gregory alleges that Levy’s camp cut 52 pages from an existing 150-page draft, including swaths of public testimony blasting the county executive. Levy and the group drafting the report deny those accusations, but whether or not this particular draft was cut is beside the point.

Levy openly admits that he had access to the report throughout the drafting process, since the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council answers to the county executive. That makes it impossible to know how much influence his office exerted during the drafting process.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has done fine work in other circumstances, and the individual members may well be personally honest. But the group should not have been selected to draft this hate crimes report. The inherent conflict of interest – that the group answers to Levy – made it the wrong choice.

As a point of comparison, turn to an independent study: the 2009 report on hate crimes by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.”

The center has a longstanding reputation for researching hate crimes and offering prescriptive solutions, and proven expertise investigating complex and sensitive social issues.

The resultant report incorporated into its findings over 100 on-the-ground interviews with Latino immigrants, advocates, and government officials. As an outside body, the center was able to critically examine how the county government and police force handled hate crimes.

Whether due to lack of resources or political willpower, the task force had no such guidance in drafting its report, a perilous way to approach a difficult task. The evidence thus far points to a result that Long Islanders shouldn’t trust – a report that reflects Steve Levy’s interests, rather than those of residents.

Tomorrow: Did the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force receive enough input from immigrants and advocates in researching its report?

Reason #4

The Suffolk report on hate crime needs victim testimony, as well as strong input from Suffolk County advocates.

Earlier this week, we pointed out that the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force, a body created to research and report on such crimes in the area, wasn’t adequately equipped to undertake such a complex investigation.

Even though the report is still in the drafting stages, local media – namely Newsday – has criticized the research for its lack of testimony from hate crime victims.

If such testimony is missing, then that aspect of the criticism is valid.

Finding victims of unreported hate crimes isn’t easy, but it’s a vital undertaking for this type of investigation. The Southern Poverty Law Center, in its 2009 report on Suffolk hate crime, sent a researcher who spent months building relationships and seeking out victims of violence.

Formulating the report was painstaking work, but it paid off. The center’s report provides compelling first-hand testimony about the extent of violence against immigrants in Suffolk County, and the depth of the county government’s indifference to those crimes.

As we mentioned, Newsday reported that few hate crime victims took to the microphone and told their stories at the public forums hosted by the task force.

But neither the task force nor Newsday should have expected victims to come forward in that setting. Such an assumption places the burden on the victim – assuming victims even heard about the sparsely publicized gatherings, and understood what actually constituted a hate crime.

Beyond that, it’s unreasonable to think that hate crime victims, often from marginalized communities, would feel comfortable attending any of the public forums, much less speaking openly about the crimes.

To compile such stories, the task force would have needed more resources, and the guidance of a group like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That’s not to say that the existing testimony is without value. During the four public forums, a spectrum of community leaders and Suffolk residents came forward and spoke about the plight of hate crimes, offering prescriptions and resources, as well as heartfelt concern.

Many of those leaders came from Suffolk County’s immigration advocacy community, and those voices should help guide the work of the task force.

The testimony from advocates is especially valuable since the task force membership didn’t include Suffolk’s foremost experts on the local immigrant community. The advice of local leaders like Luis Valenzuela, the director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, needs to be heard.

In particular, the task force should closely consider a set of recommendations for addressing hate crimes that was issued by the Long Island Immigrant Alliance and Long Island Wins.

If the task force intends to offer ways to combat hate crime in Suffolk County, then the group can’t afford to ignore the voices of area immigrants and advocates.

Tomorrow: How will the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force report compare to other investigations into the issue?

Reason #5

While the task force report on hate crime will have value, it will not rival independent investigations by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Over the course of this week, we’ve focused on the doubts that we have about an upcoming report on hate crimes by the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force.

We should also note that the report will likely have some merit. In testimony from four public hearings on hate crime, Suffolk residents spoke out about the need to curb anti-immigrant rhetoric and develop more welcoming communities, and local immigration experts offered ways to address the problem. Such documentation, if included in the final report, will greatly aid our understanding of hate crime.

And we should reiterate that we don’t question the integrity of the individual members of the Hate Crimes Task Force. Indeed, Long Island Wins has recognized the head of the task force, DuWayne Gregory, as a top-tier legislator on middle-class issues, including immigration. In November, we published a profile of task force member Renee Ortiz, lauding her work in the community. Another member, David Kilmnick, serves on the Long Island Wins steering committee.

Still our concerns are significant: Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has the power and ability to influence the report, by his own admission, and some task force members could face professional repercussions for criticizing how the county has handled hate crimes.

The task force itself is not adequately constituted to perform such a difficult undertaking, and the nature of its investigation – so closely linked to Suffolk County politics – means that it must be regarded with an extremely critical eye.

That doesn’t mean that hate crimes can’t be studied. Two more thorough independent investigations exist, one by the Southern Poverty Law Center and another, ongoing, by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.,” offers a detailed chronology of the roots of anti-immigrant rhetoric and hate in eastern Long Island, with deeply researched testimony from immigrant victims themselves, as well as recommendations for how Suffolk County can correct its most egregious mistakes.

We also expect that the investigation by the Justice Department into discriminatory policing in Suffolk, which will culminate in a prescriptive memorandum to the Suffolk County Police Department, will offer a definitive look into how the county has handled hate crime, and where the inadequacies lie.

Both organizations provide what the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force cannot: independence and credibility. Hate crimes have been disregarded for too long in Suffolk County, and we must demand the most extensive and productive investigations possible.

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