Immigrant advocates, who have long maintained that bias crime complaints fell through the cracks, said they felt vindicated Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Justice recommended policy changes in the Suffolk County Police Department.
The Justice Department letter, issued as part of an ongoing federal investigation, pointed to a lack of follow-up after bias crime reports, to potential inquiries about immigration status and to language barriers as possible obstacles in community relations.
“These were problems we knew about all along,” said Luis Valenzuela, Long Island Immigrant Alliance director. “The fact that they had to issue a preliminary opinion before finishing their investigation suggests there are serious problems in the police department that need immediate attention.”
Joselo Lucero, whose brother Marcelo was killed in a 2008 attack, said the recommendations are a good start in a matter that calls for a “more in-depth investigation.”
He said the community shouldn’t rest until noticeable changes take place and the Justice Department uncovers “who were the officials behind the negligence” that created an unsafe climate for immigrants.
Suffolk police officials said they have made progress in improving the way officers relate to the immigrant community.
Besides having a minority affairs adviser who serves as a liaison to community groups, the department has been attracting bilingual officers and using translation services. And its officers, they said, are not looking to question victims and witnesses about immigration matters.
“We have done a lot to build bridges with the Latino community,” said Deputy Chief Christopher Bergold.
However, Maryann Slutsky, director of the immigrant advocacy group Long Island Wins, said the Justice Department’s recommendations point to “wide-ranging and serious problems” that will take time to fix.
The Rev. Allan Ramirez, Brookville Reformed Church pastor, said he hopes the recommendations lead to more drastic action. He doesn’t trust that local officials will solve those problems on their own.
“This letter from the feds is treating the Suffolk police like third-graders who haven’t done their homework,” Ramirez said. “Maybe we just need the Department of Justice to take over.”
The Department of Justice letter lauded the work of Det. Lola Quesada, the Suffolk police commissioner’s adviser on minority affairs, who said community meetings have proved invaluable in sharing information and gaining better understanding of immigrants’ concerns.
“I have tried to identify several groups that are looking to have a better relationship with the police department,” Quesada said. “We want to know about them and what we can do to help them.”
Those efforts are all good and more reforms are needed, but a larger conversation needs to take place that involves all sectors of the community, said the Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, pastor of The Congregational Church of Patchogue.
Victims and victimizers, immigrants and those who resent the influx of immigrants, police and clergy should all participate in finding solutions, he said.
“A community cannot police itself into peace,” Wolter said. “It wasn’t just the people arrested on this that had issues, but also a larger segment of the community that needs to be heard.