Latinos in Suffolk County filed a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday in federal court, accusing the Police Department of engaging in a widespread pattern of racial discrimination, harassment and cover-ups that occurred even while the Justice Department was investigating it for bias, the complaint said.
The accusations come amid a national climate of outrage over police practices, and on Long Island there is a sense among the swelling numbers of Latino immigrants that hate crimes and police indifference are something to be feared, if not expected.
“We are looking to see that the broken system is restored for every one of us and our families, so that we can once again walk and drive on Suffolk County streets and not be worried that we would be stopped, if for the only reason for the color of our skin,” said Irma Solis, a community organizer with Make the Road New York’s advocacy group on Long Island.
“On another level,” she added, “hopefully we’ll be able to create some change to allow for greater police accountability.”
The named defendants in the suit include Police Commissioner Edward Webber and Sgt. Scott A. Greene, a veteran Suffolk police sergeant who was arrested in January 2014 and accused of targeting and stealing from Latino residents. In the complaint, the 21 plaintiffs also claim that the Suffolk Police Department did not enact the changes in supervision and training policies mandated by the Justice Department in 2014.
The Police Department declined to comment on the lawsuit and was not immediately able to detail how it had responded to the Justice Department agreement.
“We do not comment on pending litigation,” a police spokesman said.
But the lawsuit on Wednesday could not have come as a surprise to the authorities. The department had been under federal investigation since 2009, following the hate-crime killing of an Ecuadorean man, Marcelo Lucero. Then in 2010, an immigrant laborer was killed in another apparent hate crime that remains unsolved, causing the Latino community to wonder whether the police have deliberately delayed the investigation.
The bias investigation took five years and was settled when the Police Department signed the Justice Department agreement. But that accord came two weeks before Sergeant Greene was arrested in a sting operation conducted by the county district attorney’s office.
Sergeant Greene was caught on camera stealing $100 from an envelope in the front seat of a car after stopping a Latino man who was an undercover officer. That arrest emboldened Latino residents, some undocumented immigrants, to speak out about their similar experiences.
“I’m excited because we’re fighting for our rights here, and in putting in this lawsuit, we are hoping for some kind of change,” a 34-year-old man from Honduras, who was quoted in the complaint as a victim, said in an interview through an interpreter.
Testimony from victims led to a grand jury indictment of Sergeant Greene in June for hate crimes, larceny and official misconduct. He pleaded not guilty; his trial has yet to be scheduled. The district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, has contended that the sergeant acted on his own.
“Here we have a crime spree that went on for 10 years in their ranks,” Foster Maer, senior litigation counsel for LatinoJustice, said in an interview. “Did someone see he was doing it and ignored it? Did he escape attention? Was the monitoring system not working? Either way it reflects a fundamental failure of the system.”
The complaint paints a picture of arbitrary police stops, a scheme it calls “stop-and-rob.” In 2011, two Latino men were walking when they were stopped and frisked without cause, according to the complaint, and an officer took one man’s wallet, and upon its return, the man discovered $100 was missing. He called 911 demanding it be returned and warned he would go to the news media if it was not.
And then, according to the complaint, a non-Spanish speaking officer returned the money later, saying, “Amigo, this money fell out of the wallet.”
The complaint says the officer added, “Don’t call 911 anymore, or the news.” Later, the complaint details how another officer, Lt. Milagros Soto, listened to the 911 call and interviewed the victim; but no action was taken.
The plaintiffs filed anonymously, according to a separate petition, in part to protect themselves from retaliation.
The complaint also says that an Officer Podormer, confiscated the wallet of a Latino man after a car accident on Oct. 14. The 38-year-old man, known as Plaintiff 21, was taken to the hospital, he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, where he asked a nurse about his wallet and she assured him the police would return it. It contained $300.
In a county where Latino immigrants say they constantly worry about mistreatment by the police, some do not know if this lawsuit will bring change.
“I don’t hope for anything,” Plaintiff 21 said through an interpreter.
“I just hope to get my wallet back.”
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