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Anti-Immigrant Hate Crime In Suffolk Tests Police Willingness to Protect Latinos

On June 30, a Guatemalan immigrant was attacked by three men who jumped out of a pickup truck and beat him. The victim, named Juan, was riding his bike from his restaurant job in Farmingville, in central Suffolk County, to his home in Coram. It was 12:30 AM and there were few people out who could have witnessed the brutal assault on the dark road.

Juan did not know the men. He said had never seen them before. He had not been involved in an altercation with them, and he could think of no motive for the beating he received. According to Juan, the only clue to their motive was when one of the men said “I hate these people” after he got out of the truck.

The men kicked Juan at least six times injuring his legs, arms, and face. A woman who saw him later said he was badly bruised.

The Suffolk Police had a sorry record of responding to anti-immigrant hate crimes between 1999 and 2008. Reports of attacks against immigrants were met with indifference by the nearly all-white police force. More than a dozen attacks on immigrants by young men went uninvestigated by police until a group of seven men attacked and killed Ecuadoran immigrant Marcelo Lucero in November of 2008.

Then-County Executive Steve Levy had maligned immigrants for more than a decade, inciting hatred and inspiring a climate of fear. Farmingville, Levy’s base, was the center of the organized anti-immigrant movement. Immigrants had been kidnapped there by Neo-Nazis, students had burned down an immigrant family’s house, and a local group routinely harassed immigrants in their homes and neighborhoods. Responding to the white community, police allowed young people free reign to attack immigrants.

After the killing of Marcelo Lucero in nearby Patchogue drew national attention, the number of attacks lessened as teens learned that beating immigrants could lead to jail time. Politicians also quieted down as voters accused them of having blood on their hands.

After vigorous efforts by Long Island immigrant rights groups, the Suffolk County Police Department was forced to initiate reforms. The pace of change increased when the United States Department of Justice initiated an investigation of the county’s policing practices. Since 2009, local groups have been meeting with the police and the Justice Department to insure proper treatment of hate crime reports, better language access for non-English speakers, and outreach to immigrant communities.

While some meaningful changes have taken place, deep problems in the culture of Suffolk policing continue. For example, police are now required to use telephonic translation when encountering crime victims who don’t speak English, but there have been many instances in which officers have violated this rule. Police have also used children to help interpret for their parents, a practice that should only take place in emergencies.

Most shockingly, a Suffolk Police sergeant was indicted last year for robbing Latino drivers during traffic stops. He had been stopping cars driven by Latinos and stealing money from drivers for years, yet no other police officer had ever reported him. When Latinos had complained to the police about the sergeant, their reports were ignored for more than a year.

The Suffolk County Police Department is now investigating the attack on Juan. It has been properly categorized as a suspected hate crime, but Long Island immigrant rights advocates are concerned at the initial handling of the case. Violations of the department’s own procedures for receiving crime reports from immigrants might have discouraged the victim from filing his report. Fortunately for Juan, a local community leader, Irma Solis, happened to be at the police precinct when Juan tried to report the crime and she was able to help him navigate the process.

The immigrant community in Suffolk is carefully watching this case to see if a police department with a poor record of responding to attacks on immigrants has really changed. 

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