On immigration, Suffolk County is probably best known for the hate crime murder of Marcel Lucero.
Many have commented on how the political leadership of then-County Executive Steve Levy, which was routinely racist and anti-immigrant, contributed to a climate of hate against Latinos in the County. The problem was so serious that the Justice Department launched an investigation into the Suffolk County Police Department’s handling of Latino hate crime complaints.
The Justice Department focused on the SCPD’s handling of hate crime reports and when it was permissible for officers to ask a suspect or victim about their immigration status.
The SCPD was not investigated for its severe deficiency in protecting Spanish-speaking victims of domestic violence.
A first-hand account provides a vivid illustration of a system that endangers the lives of Latina/o domestic violence victims.
A woman was grabbed and violently pushed to the ground by her live-in boyfriend. She was in pain from the fall and scared for her life. She called 911 to ask for help.
Several officers responded to the woman’s call. However, none of the officers spoke Spanish and the woman did not speak English. Her boyfriend spoke English. The police officers did not offer to provide a professional interpreter. The police did not arrest the boyfriend that night. Further, the police report made no mention of the woman’s allegations of physical abuse.
The boyfriend returned hours later to again threaten and physically abuse the woman.
She called the police a second time. This time, however, she insisted that an interpreter be available over the phone. Despite having an interpreter, and despite her wish to have him arrested, the police left a second time and wrote up another report that made no mention of physical abuse. The police did not even bother to separate the boyfriend from the woman.
Again, the boyfriend piled on the physical and verbal abuse. Again, the woman called the police. Again, the police did nothing. Actually, they did do something: they told her that if she wanted her boyfriend to be arrested, they would have to arrest her as well.
Scared and ignored by the police, the woman turned to me (I’m not a police officer or have I ever been) for help. I, too, was ignored. The woman was told that she had to go to the same department of police officers who had just hours ago told her that she would be arrested if she pressed charges against her boyfriend.
The police would not make the trip to my office because they were in a different geographical region in the County although they still belong to the same entity: The Suffolk County Police Department. Given that the police already did not do their job properly and even contributed to the fear underlying the abuse, it is unreasonable to require a domestic violence victim to ask them for help.
Yes, there is a family offense protection order available. However, a victim whose life is in imminent danger may not know or have the option to avail themselves of this protection. There should be an immediate law enforcement alternative for victims of domestic violence if there is reasonable suspicion that the police improperly failed to take action at the original point of contact with the complainant.
An example of when an alternative should be available is when the police did not have a Spanish-speaking officer available to speak to a complainant who only spoke Spanish.
Who should be the alternative? The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. As the Suffolk County DA’s office policy stands now, a victim cannot press charges through their office. The DA will only prosecute a crime if it is sent to them by the SCPD. This policy is dangerous and exposes the most vulnerable victims to police officer errors or misconduct.
Nassau, the bordering county, already has a system in place where victims and others can lodge a complaint directly with the District Attorney’s Office. This system prioritizes the public’s safety over that of police misconduct or mistakes.
The policy of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office gives far too much power to the police. It appoints them as sole arbiter of whether a suspect should be arrested and charged with a crime.
Steve Bellone, the new County Executive, promised to change Suffolk’s anti-immigrant and anti-Latino/a culture. He should start by advocating for a policy where the community’s most vulnerable victims can report crimes directly to the District Attorney’s Office.