The Suffolk County Legislature on Tuesday approved a settlement between federal officials and the county’s police department mandating changes on how the department treats Latinos and immigrants.
The settlement, which also calls for federal oversight of the department, ends a probe launched by the U.S. Justice Department in 2009, after a group of teenagers fatally stabbed and beat Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant, in Patchogue, N.Y., in 2008.
Suffolk County Police agreed to increase outreach to the Latino community, ensure non-English speakers can access police services, modify training and enhance investigations of hate crimes and bias incidents.
The legislature approved the agreement by a vote of 16-0, with little discussion.
“We have a common goal,” said Suffolk County Police Commissioner Edward Webber. “We always wanted to protect and serve all the people of Suffolk.” He said many of the changes mandated in the settlement are already in place.
Latino immigrants and their advocates said the agreement is part of an overall shift in Suffolk County’s attitude toward immigrants in the years since Mr. Lucero’s death.
“We’ve seen, slowly but steadily, a change,” Maria Magdalena Hernandez [member of Make the Road New York], 49 years old, of Bay Shore, N.Y., said in Spanish, through an interpreter.
“Where we are today is at a historic moment,” said Luis Valenzuela, executive director of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance. “The accord between the Department of Justice and Suffolk County is an opportunity to move forward.”
At the time of Mr. Lucero’s death, Suffolk County had a reputation for tensions between some white suburbanites and Latino immigrants who were rapidly changing the demographics of the nation and the county. A 2004 documentary, “Farmingville,” chronicled the tensions in one community.
A 2009 Southern Poverty Law Center report, “Climate of Fear,” also highlighted instances of alleged harassment against suspected illegal immigrants in the county.
Steve Levy, who served as county executive from 2004 to 2011, took a hard line against illegal immigrants and emerged as a national figure in the immigration debate. On Tuesday, he called the settlement a “vindication” because federal authorities didn’t make allegations of discriminatory policing during his term.
“It destroyed the fabricated allegation that there was some type of conspiracy to not investigate assaults against Hispanics,” he said. He also said that many of the changes mandated in the settlement started during his term.
Steve Bellone, the current county executive, said he made a decision to improve relations with the Latino community when he took office in 2012. This year, Suffolk County became the first suburban county in the state to make widespread translation services available to non-English-speaking residents.
“Unfortunately, because of a lot of the rhetoric and policy, Suffolk County had gained this reputation around the country for intolerance, which I knew to be inaccurate, not reflective of our county, and it was something that needed to change,” he said.
As Suffolk County’s Latino and immigrant communities continue to grow, they are emerging as a political force. The Long Island Civic Engagement Table, which formed in 2011, has registered voters in heavily Latino communities like Brentwood and Central Islip.
“Our work is registering and mobilizing voters to make the electorate more closely mirror Long Island’s changing demographics,” said Daniel Altschuler, the group’s coordinator.
Joselo Lucero, Mr. Lucero’s brother, said he was disappointed the settlement didn’t mention alleged instances in which police misclassified hate crimes and bias incidents before his brother’s death.
Mr. Webber, who took office in 2012, said the department investigated the incidents and reclassified them when necessary.
Joselo Lucero, 38, of Bay Shore, now an outreach coordinator at the nonprofit Hagedorn Foundation, said he has noticed a shift in Suffolk County’s tone toward Latinos and immigrants, but there is work to be done.
“It’s not something like you can change overnight, or you can change in five years,” he said. “It’s something we have to develop.”
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