Suffolk County, N.Y., Police Department Reaches Agreement with DOJ to Reform Hate Crime Practices

The police department in Suffolk County, N.Y., has reached a tentative agreement with the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) to enhance the training of its officers and improve the way it investigates hate crimes and bias incidents, resolving a federal investigation into the county’s policing practices that followed revelations of rampant anti-Latino violence in the county.

The agreement announced yesterday, which still requires the approval of the county legislature, conforms to DOJ recommendations issued in 2011.

The Suffolk County Police Department came under scrutiny in the wake of the 2008 killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcel Lucero by a group of teens engaging in what they called “beaner-jumping.” In 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) issued a report, Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y, that documented widespread hatred and violence directed at the county’s Latino immigrants. The report also showed how certain political leaders in the county had added fuel to the fire by ignoring the problem and using inflammatory rhetoric.

The SPLC report called for major changes in the police department’s relationship with its rapidly growing immigrant population, in particular pointing to the need for training law enforcement officials to adequately address hate-motivated crime. In 2011, the SPLC lobbied the DOJ directly to investigate the county’s activities.

“The agreement announced today … commits SCPD to significant changes in how it engages the Latino community,” the Justice Department said in its statement. The reforms include strengthening the department’s outreach into Latino communities. U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department will monitor compliance for at least one year.

It appears that life for Suffolk’s immigrant population has already improved to some extent. Latino residents interviewed by The Associated Press for a story about the fifth anniversary of Lucero’s murder last month said they had noticed significant improvement in how they are treated, both by police and their neighbors. “Now, the people report to the police, with or without documents,” Cecilia Bonilla, an immigrant from El Salvador, told the AP. “A lot has changed. I still hear that people are beaten, but not as much as before. Before it was worse.”