RIVERHEAD, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The Suffolk County Police Department has reached a tentative agreement to enhance investigations of hate crimes and bias incidents, in the wake of federal scrutiny following the 2008 hate crime killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant.
The killing focused attention on the county, which has seen an influx of immigrants from Central and South America in the past 15 years. The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report after the killing, documenting repeated attacks on Hispanics in Suffolk County since 2000.
The announcement Tuesday follows a 2011 U.S. Department of Justice missive that called for Suffolk County police to provide enhanced training of police officers, as well as improved investigations of hate crimes and bias incidents. The agreement still requires the approval of the county legislature.
“The agreement announced today memorializes those recommendations and commits SCPD to significant changes in how it engages the Latino community,” the Justice Department said in a statement. Other policy changes 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.
“This agreement memorializes and builds upon the progress we have made throughout my administration to improve relations with ethnically diverse communities, ensure language access for all Suffolk County residents, and prioritize community led policing,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
Amol Sinha, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said his organization was optimistic about the agreement, calling it a “strong step in the right direction towards protecting and serving all Suffolk residents. We hope the Police Department will take this opportunity to earn the community’s trust and restore its reputation.”
The police department came under scrutiny after the November 2008 stabbing of Marcelo Lucero by a gang of teenagers. The seven teens, who were all convicted and are serving prison terms, later said they had regularly targeting Hispanics in their Patchogue community; they said they feared no reprisals from police because of their actions.
The teens said they were confident victims feared reporting crimes because they might be asked about their immigration status.
Lucero, a 37-year-old dry cleaning worker, was walking with a friend near the Patchogue Long Island Rail Road station around midnight that day when a group of seven teenagers confronted them.
A fight broke out and police said the group of teens shouted racial slurs at the two men before Lucero was fatally stabbed in the chest.
The seven teens were convicted of hate crime-related charges. The teen who actually stabbed Lucero was convicted of manslaughter and was given a 25-year sentence; the others are serving lesser sentences. Most of the seven also admitted participating in prior attacks on Hispanics, including two earlier on the day Lucero was killed.
But the incident that took Lucero’s life was hardly the first attack targeting Latinos in Suffolk County.
As far back as 2000, two Mexican day laborers were nearly beaten to death by a pair of white teenagers in nearby Farmingville. Three years later, teens burned a home inhabited by Hispanics to the ground after tossing fireworks through a window on the Fourth of July.
Hispanic residents in the area interviewed by The Associated Press for a story about the fifth anniversary of the killing 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,” said Cecilia Bonilla, 48, from El Salvador, as she cooked fried plantains and chicken at her restaurant near the spot where Lucero was killed. “A lot has changed. I still hear that people are beaten, but not as much as before. Before it was worse.”
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