The U.S. Justice Department has begun an investigation into allegations of “discriminatory policing” by the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Police Department over how officers responded to reports of crimes against Latinos.
The investigation, announced Monday, will be conducted by the Justice Department’s civil rights division and the local U.S. attorney’s office. It comes about nine months after the agencies began looking into a complaint that the Suffolk police force failed to adequately investigate crimes against Latinos and discouraged them from seeking assistance. The complaint was filed shortly after the November killing of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant fatally stabbed in the town of Patchogue in what authorities say was a hate crime.
“This is a civil, pattern or practice investigation that will seek to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law by members of the SCPD,” Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said in a statement announcing the investigation.
The investigation begins one month after the release of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Report, “Climate of Fear,” which examined in detail a years-long pattern of violence and abuse directed at Latino immigrants in Suffolk County, which occupies the eastern portion of Long Island.
The report showed that the Lucero murder, while the worst of the violence so far, was hardly an isolated incident, and that Latino immigrants were regularly harassed, taunted, and pelted with objects hurled from cars. Some reported being beaten with baseball bats and other objects. Adding to immigrants’ fears was the furious rhetoric of nativist groups such as the now-defunct Sachem Quality of Life, whose longtime spokesman regularly referred to immigrants as “terrorists.”
The report also found that among those fueling the anti-immigrant fire have been many of the very people who are charged with protecting the residents of Suffolk County — local politicians and law enforcement officials. One county legislator said that if he saw an influx of Latino day laborers in his town, “we’ll be out with baseball bats.” Another said that if Latino workers were to gather in a local neighborhood, “I would load my gun and start shooting, period.”
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer told The New York Times that he welcomed the federal investigation. It “gives us a chance to dispel the myths that we didn’t investigate thoroughly and completely any complaints that have come to our attention.”
Dormer acknowledged that his force may have missed a pattern of racially motivated crime against Latinos in the county in recent years but said that was because some crimes were apparently not reported to the police, the Times said.
The investigation was welcomed by LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Manhattan-based national advocacy group that filed the initial complaint with the Justice Department last November. “Hopefully they can find out what’s gone wrong and determine why there seems to be a failure by police … and Latinos will be able to walk the streets again with confidence that the police are treating them fairly,” Foster Maer, a senior staff attorney for the organization, told Newsday.
Miyar, the Justice Department spokesman, told Newsday that investigations of this sort usually take 12 to 18 months. If the investigation finds wrongdoing, the police department could reach a settlement with the federal agency to change policies and practices or be forced to do so through a court-ordered consent decree. Over the past 10 years, Miyar said, the Justice Department has launched about two to three such investigations every year.