DOJ launches probe of Suffolk police

(10/05/09) WOODBURY - The U.S. Department of Justice has stepped up its inquiry into the Suffolk County Police Department, announcing Monday it has launched an official investigation into allegations of discriminatory policing.

The Justice Department's civil rights division and the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District will conduct the joint investigation, which comes about nine months after the agencies began looking into a complaint that Suffolk County police failed to adequately investigate crimes against Latinos and discouraged Latinos from seeking assistance. The complaint was filed shortly after the November killing of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant fatally stabbed in Patchogue in what authorities say was a hate crime.

"This is a civil, pattern or practice investigation that will seek to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law by members of the SCPD," said U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Alejandro Miyar, in a statement issued Monday.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said he was notified by letter of the investigation Monday. "I welcome an opportunity to sit down with the Justice Department and tell them what we do to handle hate crimes and to dispel the rumors and misinformation that's out there," he said. "We have very, very comprehensive policies in place and they were in place well before the Lucero murder."

The letter says the DOJ has reached no conclusions about the subject matter, he said.

The investigation will run concurrently with the agencies' ongoing criminal review of alleged racially motivated assaults against Latinos in Suffolk County.

Monday's news was welcomed by LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the Manhattan-based national advocacy group that filed the initial complaint with the Justice Department last November. "Latinos in Suffolk County have been telling us that they don't feel that they're being treated fairly by the police and that there's been a level of hostility or indifference when they've reported crimes to the police," said Foster Maer, a senior staff attorney for the organization.

"Hopefully they can find out what's gone wrong and determine why there seems to be a failure by police . . . and Latinos will be able to walk the streets again with confidence that the police are treating them fairly," he added.

Pattern or practice investigations usually take a year to a year-and-a-half, the DOJ said. If the civil investigation finds wrongdoing, the police department could reach a settlement with DOJ to change policies and practices or be forced to do so through a court-ordered consent decree.

Miyar said for the past 10 years the department has launched about two to three such investigations every year.

Experts said such probes are relatively rare and indicate the seriousness of the situation.

"The fact that they initiated an official investigation means they have enough to take a serious look at it, and given the calls for Department of Justice investigations that they get on a daily basis, this is significant," said J. Herbie DiFonzo, a Hofstra University law professor and former federal prosecutor and DOJ attorney.

The announcement comes on the heels of last month's scathing Southern Poverty Law Center report that described a climate of fear among Latinos in Suffolk County.

Monday, employees at the Alabama-based Center said they had received a call from the Justice Department to discuss their report. "We certainly don't think that the Suffolk police have been wholly irresponsible in this; clearly they've made many efforts to improve their work," said Mark Potok, director of the Center's Intelligence Report. "I think it's good to have an outside, serious investigation come in and take a look at this and try to really access what the situation is."

Joselo Lucero, Lucero's brother, said he wasn't surprised to hear the news. "Everybody knows we have discrimination with the police," said Lucero, 35, of Patchogue. "Because of my brother, these things are happening. They should have done this a long time ago."

With Melanie Lefkowitz

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