A public dispute between Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and Det. Sgt. Robert Reecks regarding the Hate Crimes Unit of the Suffolk County Police Department is raising concerns among national and local immigration leaders over the way the county is dealing with bias crimes.
In January, Reecks, who was head of the hate crime unit for 13 years, told Newsday that Levy whitewashed hate crimes and directly inhibited his work, interfering in the handling of cases as well as what information was provided to the public.
Levy responded with a statement saying that Reeks’ declarations were “replete with falsehoods and devoid of numerous crucial facts.” He claimed that Reecks was retaliating after being passed over for a higher position in the department. “Reecks was miffed that he was not assigned to the new position and had not scored high enough on the lieutenant’s exam to be considered for that rank,” he said.
“Both allegations are very serious,” said Anthony Miranda, executive chairman for the National Latino Officers Association of America. “If Reecks didn’t qualify and was not familiar with the law, after being in charge of the unit for so long, it means that all the investigations are potentially flawed and were investigated improperly. And if Reecks allegations about the Executive sanitizing how the investigations were held then there was an abuse of authority and political interference,” Miranda warned.
Either way, Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, the director of Long Island Wins said, this indicates that the unit is doing a bad job.
“Regardless of who is telling the truth, this episode shows clearly that Suffolk County’s handling of hate crimes is completely dysfunctional and must be overhauled to put a stop to the wave of hate violence we’ve seen over the past several years,” said Slutsky.
There is currently a U.S. Department of Justice investigation underway looking into discriminatory policing against Hispanics in Suffolk County. Long Island has been plagued by a number of hate crime incidents over the past few years, the most well known case being that of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant who was murdered in 2008 in the town of Patchogue by a youth gang calling themselves “the Caucasian Crew” that targeted Latino residents. In April 2010 Jeffrey Conroy was convicted of manslaughter as a hate crime in Lucero’s death.
To express new concerns about the mishandling of hate crime cases in light of the Levy-Reecks dispute, a coalition of 11 local and national immigration leaders met attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division on Monday and made some recommendations to expand their ongoing federal investigation.
According to Miranda, who participated in the meeting that lasted more than one hour, the fact that the DOJ was willing to sit down and talk was already a good sign.
“They took the suggestions seriously and they asked questions,” Miranda said. “It was positive, but again, the final determination of success depends on the changes the DOJ conducts.”
Immigration leaders have been especially worried about hate crimes on Long Island since Lucero’s death. But as Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, concluded in his 2009 report, Climate of Fear: Latino Immigrants in Suffolk County, N.Y., Lucero’s murder “was hardly an isolated incident.”
“Latino immigrants in Suffolk County are regularly harassed, taunted, and pelted with objects hurled from cars. They are frequently run off the road while riding bicycles, and many report being beaten with baseball bats and other objects. Others have been shot with BB guns or pepper-sprayed. Most will not walk alone after dark; parents often refuse to let their children play outside. A few have been the targets of arson attacks and worse,” states Potok.
Miranda said the coalition was interested in the U.S. Department of Justice considering a potential criminal investigation against the hate crime unit.
“We need permanent, long term changes,” Miranda said. The coalition and the Long Island Immigrant Alliance are recommending the creation of an independent body to monitor the police department’s compliance with international hate crimes guidelines.
Xochitl Hinojosa, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson, declined to comment because the investigation remains open and ongoing but added that “the Department of Justice appreciates the input of community members regarding these important issues.”
The Suffolk County Police Department didn’t answer a request to comment for this story. Instead, Dan Aug, Levy’s director of communications, sent a statement from the County Executive:
“We are sure the Department of Justice will recognize that the definition of what is and what is not a hate crime is determined through New York State law, and cannot be influenced by the administration or any other entity. How Suffolk County investigates, reports and prosecutes hate crimes is of utmost concern to us, which is why I elevated the unit to place it under the command of a detective lieutenant.”