Suffolk More Tolerant After Hate Crime

Marcelo Lucero (Photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

Marcelo Lucero (Photo via El Diario-La Prensa)

Five years have passed since Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero was murdered for racial motives in Patchogue, Long Island. In that time, Suffolk County has evolved from its initial apathy to an increased level of tolerance.

One of their most promising measures is an executive order – effective November 14 – forcing government agencies in the county to provide translation and interpretation services to the over 120,000 residents who do not speak English.

“We have noticed that the authorities have a better attitude towards dialogue,” said Daniel Altschuler, president of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table. “A Spanish-speaking police department makes crimes easier to report. In the past, this resource was a limited one, often nonexistent, for the Hispanic community.”

In the department’s next graduation, 10 percent of officers will boast the new title “Spanish-Speaking Police Officer.”

This is not the only new measure of its type in a community traumatized by racial violence. In his 21 months as Suffolk County executive, Steve Bellone has attempted to establish policy and agreements that help create a climate of tolerance and respect among the county’s diverse communities.

For instance, the Suffolk County Police Department has simplified the process to report racial crimes by following the norms and supervision of the New York State Department of Justice.

“The new procedure prevents the police from categorizing a race crime as a misdemeanor,” said Luis Montes, spokesman for the county executive.

Last Friday, Bellone inaugurated “Welcoming Week” in the county to promote respect and cooperation among newcomers and longtime residents of Long Island.

Long Island Wins and First Person American, the two nonprofits in charge of the initiative, showed nine short films inspired by the question “What is your story?”. The films explored the lives of immigrants and the people who helped them settle, and the way in which this cooperation changed their lives.

“We are trying to create a place where we recognize that our diversity makes our culture stronger and brings about a more prosperous economy,” said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, executive director of Long Island Wins.

According to Department of Justice figures, hate crime incidents have declined in Suffolk County from 62 in 2008 to 39 in 2011. The number of violent homicides also came down, from 39 in 2008 to 23 in 2012.

Margarito Mayorga, an Ecuadorean construction worker who has lived in the area for over two decades, said that he feels “safer and more confident” than before.

“Patchogue is still not a harassment-free city for Hispanics, but it has definitely turned more respectful,” said Mayorga, who believes that Lucero’s murder was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the growing Ecuadorean community in the area.

Lucero, 37, was violently attacked on Nov. 8, 2008 by seven teenagers near a train station.

Joselo Lucero, the victim’s brother, said that the tragedy blew the lid off the anti-immigrant climate that was well-known by the Hispanic community.

“Several police reports of racially-motivated aggressions, even before my brother’s case, were ignored by the authorities, who were not interested in serving communities of color,” said Lucero. “The victims remained silent because they were scared and did not trust a police department incapable of communicating in Spanish.”

In 2009, a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which focuses on hate groups, noticed that statements by authorities may promote hostility against immigrants.

LatinoJustice PRLDEF added that former County Executive Steve Levy’s anti-immigrant policies contributed to fostering an intolerant attitude against immigrants.

The Justice Department confirmed allegations made by activists and community organizers on a 28-page letter demanding reforms in the investigation procedures for hate crimes in Suffolk County. The letter accused the police of disregarding reports of previous attacks.

The Department of Justice found that, in Lucero’s case, the police had issued citations to some of the young men accused of the murder for shooting a Hispanic man with an air gun only hours before the killing. The police report classified the incident as a disturbance at the time, while the new law would consider it a racially-motivated assault.

“It is unacceptable that a young man had to be murdered in order to bring national attention to a problem we denounced many times only to be ignored,” said Mayorga.

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