Suffolk County police and the department’s critics sounded off Thursday on the longstanding high-profile issue of racism in eastern Long Island, the day after the U.S. Department of Justice released a letter calling on the county to strengthen its efforts to combat hate crimes.
Federal authorities wrote in the letter to outgoing County Executive Steve Levy that police policies failed to pick up on warning signs that preceded the death of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, who was slain by a group of teenagers in Patchogue in November 2008.
Levy and police brass countered the letter included some welcome feedback, but noted that many of the issues raised regarding relations with the Hispanic community have already been addressed. Immigration advocates took the letter as a sign that there is still much work to be done to dispel distrust of police in minority communities.
“The tendency to brush off attacks as ‘just kids being kids’ fails to recognize the severity of criminal conduct in which minors may engage,” authorities wrote in the letter, referring to the series of bias-related incidents that led up to Lucero’s deadly encounter with seven high school students.
The 28-page letter includes dozens of police policy recommendations and marks the latest development in the two-year-old continuing federal investigation of the department’s handling of hate crimes. It remains unclear when the final report will be issued or if any civil rights violations will be uncovered.
“Some recommendations are constructive and will be implemented, many others we are already doing, and some we disagree with,” Levy said in a statement. “With the many reforms we have made over the last few years, we are likely far ahead of other like counties.”
Critics were still not appeased.
“This report confirms what all of us community leaders, immigrant advocates have been saying throughout the years,” said Rev. Allan Ramirez, the outspoken pastor at the Brookville Reformed Church. “We knew all of this already a long time ago.”
Deputy Chief of Patrol Christopher Bergold said the department already provides officers with classes in basic Spanish, hate-crimes laws education and requires more cultural sensitivity training than New York State requires.
He said that some of the critiques in the letter were apparent misunderstandings, like the assertion that police have used roadblocks to check drivers’ immigration status—Bergold said that never happened.
The letter came a week before a documentary about Lucero’s killing and its effect on the community titled, Not In Our Town: Light In The Darkness is scheduled to premiere on PBS at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21.
Joselo Lucero, Marcelo’s brother, said he still is hoping for positive change in his community, but fears misunderstandings persist.
“We’re fighting every single time for them,” said Joselo Lucero. “Because we want them to feel really secure and feel trust in the police department.”