DOJ Says Suffolk County, N.Y., Police Need Improvements on Hate Crimes

The Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter (pdf) to officials yesterday suggesting non-mandatory improvements in the way that the Suffolk County, N.Y., Police Department (SFPD) investigates hate crimes and other practices. The preliminary findings letter was part of a DOJ investigation of the department’s “patterns and practices” in the wake of the 2008 murder of immigrant Marcelo Lucero by a gang of white toughs.

Lucero’s murder by teenagers who had regularly engaged in the ethnic hunting parties they termed “beaner-jumping” shone a light on a community of immigrants who felt they were under siege, subjected to anti-immigrant violence and largely ignored or shunted aside by the police department. It also brought out the way that leading officials in the county had regularly demonized Latino immigrants.

The DOJ’s preliminary findings comported closely with those of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which published a September 2009 report on the situation entitled “Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y.” Our report described not only how large numbers of Latinos in Suffolk County were subjected to hate crimes and other abuse, but also how many Latinos felt that SFPD officers ignored or belittled them, often declining to take reports after complaints were made. It also discussed the role of hate groups in the country and, especially, high-level public officials in contributing to an atmosphere of anti-immigrant hate — but those areas were outside the scope of the DOJ investigation.

The DOJ’s investigation of SCPD is not over. But it’s not known when it will produce a final report that could result in mandatory SCPD remedial actions.

Generally, the preliminary findings letter found that SCPD needed clearer explanations of hate crimes for officers; more bilingual officers and materials; a process to make it easier to report police misconduct; a system to make it easier for community organizations to report purported hate crimes by immigrants afraid to talk to the police directly; audits of hate crime investigations and random integrity tests of the police misconduct reporting system; more training; better relationships with the Latino community; and a way of regularly updating complainants of the status of the investigation in their cases.