Over the last several years, Suffolk County, N.Y., has been a hotbed of anti-Latino hate, a place that became infamous for the brutal murder of an Ecuadorian immigrant by a gang of white teens who were out for a night of “beaner hopping.”
County Executive Steve Levy (right) has taken his share of criticism for not only failing to protect the county’s Latino community but for fanning the flames of bigotry. An investigation by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2009 documented widespread violence against Latinos in the county and cited the indifference of local authorities. The U.S. Department of Justice soon thereafter launched an investigation into discriminatory policing in the county.
Now come explosive new allegations from the former commander of the police unit charged with solving hate crimes in the county.
In a Newsday column this past Sunday, Detective Sgt. Robert Reecks told the paper that Levy whitewashed bias crimes and hindered the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Unit’s work. Reecks’ 13-year tenure heading the unit ended abruptly two weeks ago; he is now its deputy commander.
Reecks said his unit was unable to aggressively pursue its mission, because of actions taken by Levy after he took office in 2004. Reecks said that Levy changed how the department handled investigations. “They came in and they started to shut it down … all of a sudden it was, no, you are not doing that, no, that is not a hate crime,” Reecks said.
Reecks alleged further improprieties, including that Levy’s office altered press releases designed to aid hate crime investigations and that Levy failed to notify the public of solved hate crimes. Reecks also said that Levy’s administration tried to pressure him not to speak to DOJ officials investigating the alleged discriminatory policing against Latinos on Long Island without a representative of the county executive present (Reecks ultimately did testify alone).
Levy released a statement responding to Reecks’ allegations, which he called “replete with falsehoods and devoid of numerous crucial facts.”
The SPLC report, “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.,” was prompted by the 2008 murder of Marcelo Lucero by a gang of teenagers who called themselves the Caucasian Crew and targeted Latino residents as part of a sport they termed “beaner-hopping.”
An SPLC investigator interviewed Latino immigrants in Suffolk over the course of four months. What she found was disturbing. Latinos, both documented and undocumented, were regularly harassed, taunted and pelted with objects hurled from cars. They were frequently run off the road while riding bicycles, and many reported being beaten with baseball bats and other objects. Others had been shot with BB guns or pepper-sprayed. Most would not walk alone after dark, and parents often refused to let their children play outside. A few had been the targets of arson attacks and worse.
The SPLC report laid much of the blame for the climate of fear in Suffolk County on the very people charged with protecting its residents: local politicians and law enforcement officials. Chief among those fueling the fire against Latinos was Levy, who has made many intemperate remarks about Latinos and who the SPLC described in the report as “no friend of immigrants.”