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Republican Party establishes new Hispanic alliance

Latinos congregate at Xavier Palacios’ law office in Huntington Station last year to watch President Barack Obama announcing executive orders on immigration. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Republicans are vying for the votes of Suffolk’s Latinos.

The county GOP committee announced in a press release last week that for the first time in its history, it would create a Hispanic alliance tasked with registering Latino voters and recruiting potential candidates to run for office.

“For far too long, the political left has taken the Hispanic community for granted and recent polls indicate a growing frustration with the [Democratic] Party’s lack of family values and understanding of small business,” GOP chairman John Jay LaValle said in the statement.

Republicans are seeking to tap into a growing Latino electorate in Suffolk County, the statement said.

According to Nick LaLota, the Republican commissioner of the Suffolk County Board of Elections, Latinos comprise about 7.8 percent of Suffolk County’s 907,000 total registered voters this year. That’s up from 5.82 percent in 2006, he said.

When drawing up the figures, BOE officials analyzed the last names of voters to determine which individuals have “Hispanic-oriented” names, LaLota said. And while it’s not an “exact science,” it gives officials an idea of the growth of the population.

Two Hispanic Republicans — Brookhaven’s Jose Nunez and Victoria Serpa of Islip — will co-chair the Suffolk County Republican Hispanic Alliance, LaValle said. When reached this week, Nunez said there was a great opportunity for the Republicans to attract Hispanic voters, who traditionally lean Democratic.

“We believe that they have the same core values — family, business,” he said. “They’re very conservative. There’s a lot of religion.”

But as far as Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Rich Schaffer is concerned, the Republicans are late to the party. He noted the Democrats have backed several Hispanic individuals who were elected.

“It’s about time,” Schaffer said. “We welcome them to finally recognizing that the Hispanic population is an important part of our county.”

Nunez said the GOP’s new alliance would also serve an educational purpose — engaging Latino voters in a political dialogue and perhaps dispelling fears of the political process that some may have learned in their native countries.

It’s “smart” for Republicans to be reaching out to Hispanic voters, according to Xavier Palacios, a Huntington resident, school board member and co-founder of the Friends of Huntington Station Latin Quarter — a group established to revitalize Huntington Station through business development, mentorship, vocational training and other programs. The No. 1 issue on the minds of Hispanics, Palacios said, is immigration reform, and Republicans need to address the issue head-on if they’re going to attract Latino voters.

“I think it can no longer be the hot potato,” he said. “A solution to real immigration reform needs to be had.”

Not everyone thinks that Latinos care most about the immigration issue. Nunez said there are many Latinos out there who feel people should arrive and settle in the country through legal channels. He also said immigration was a federal issue, not a local one.

Other issues on the local level are of importance to Latinos too. Palacios said Republicans and Democrats would be smart to focus on economic issues, as many Latinos are staggered in professions or can’t afford college. Immigrants come here to fulfill the American Dream, something that appears to be becoming more challenging.

“Folks nowadays, in my view, are losing that dream,” he said.

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Tensions between police departments across the country and the communities they have sworn to protect have been high over the last several months, and Suffolk County is not an exception in this trend. But we differ from the areas where tensions have exploded into street protests and violence in one crucial way: We can prevent such an eruption.

A group of 21 local Latinos has recently filed a lawsuit against the Suffolk County Police Department, alleging officers racially profiled them and even robbed them during police stops over the last 10 years. The lawsuit alleges the police have a culture of discriminatory policing.

The case is in part a response to the arrest of the SCPD’s Sgt. Scott Greene, who during a sting operation was found taking money from a Latino driver. Greene now faces 81 criminal charges against a couple dozen Hispanic victims, and authorities say he was working alone.

But we could trace the issue back a little further as well, to the 2008 hate-crime stabbing murder of Marcelo Lucero, a Patchogue man from Ecuador. In the wake of the murder — for which seven young men were convicted — and the police’s investigation, there was public outcry over perceived police bias against Hispanics.

We have no doubt the majority of police officers are good people who just want to do their difficult, and at times dangerous, job of protecting Suffolk County residents. But it’s also true that a few bad apples can spoil the bunch — or lead to public perception that they have spoiled the bunch, which matters just as much.

The good news is we are in a desirable position to change things for the better — if we acknowledge the warning signs of trouble. The places in this country where there have been protests and riots, for various reasons, tensions between the police and the community had been stewing for a while. We should not let this come to pass in Suffolk County through our own inaction.

A 2013 settlement between the county Legislature and the federal Department of Justice — enacted in response to the Lucero case — is a good start. That agreement called for anti-bias training, taking feedback from the community and tracking complaints of police misconduct.

Our police department should kick that into high gear, holding more community forums and communicating to residents both the steps officers are taking to reduce bias and the progress of that work.

If we act as partners, we can improve police service and our officers’ relationship with residents to make our community a better place to live for everyone.

File photo

A contingent of 21 Latinos from Suffolk County has filed a class-action federal lawsuit suit against the Suffolk County Police Department, claiming several officers robbed them or issued them traffic citations in unfounded, race-based stops over a 10-year period.

Lawyers also charge the department with failing to correct a culture of discriminatory policing that has existed for years within the police force.

The case comes more than a year after Suffolk County Police Sgt. Scott Greene was arrested after a January 2014 sting operation uncovered he was taking money from a Latino driver. The lawsuit, filed in federal court on Wednesday, April 29, lists Suffolk County, its police department, Police Chief Ed Webber, Greene and others as defendants. LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the firm Shearman & Sterling LLP are litigating the case pro bono.

Greene’s arrest sparked the lawsuit, according to the attorneys. LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the nonprofit organization Make the Road New York, which provides services for Latino and working class families, claimed after Greene’s arrest it learned from “dozens of victims who had been too afraid or thought it pointless, to complain about widespread police criminality,” according to a statement by LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

Meanwhile, Bob Clifford, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Tom Spota, responded to the suit in a statement last week. He said that after the DA’s office spent hundreds of hours interviewing more than 50 individuals with LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Make the Road New York, two indictments encompassing 81 criminal charges involving 27 Hispanic victims were returned against Greene alone.

“There is no credible evidence that Greene acted with other police officers,” Clifford said.

All the 21 plaintiffs are anonymous and all, except for one, are male, according to the lawsuit. In a phone interview this week, Foster Maer, senior litigation counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, declined to provide details on where in Suffolk the individuals live, nor could he say if they are related to one another. The sting operation involving Greene occurred in the Farmingville, Medford and Coram areas, according to the lawsuit.

In its statement, LatinoJustice PRLDEF alleges that most of its 21 plaintiffs were stopped and robbed while driving, while others were sitting in a parked vehicle or walking down the street.

“The victims claimed that one or more officers would, in clear violation of police rules, get a hold of the victim’s wallet and then return it a few minutes later with one or two hundred dollars missing,” according to the statement.

The firm also stated that it requested the DA expand the investigation beyond Greene and claims the DA “has not replied to the request and in fact has only indicted Sgt. Greene in the robberies.”

Clifford, in his statement, however, said some of the incidents LatinoJustice PRLDEF claims the DA ignored are covered by the indictment against Greene.

“At no time did LatinoJustice provide any information whatsoever that any victims were robbed by police officers,” he said. “At no time did LatinoJustice provide any audio tape to investigators regarding any alleged crime.”

Asked how the firms would prove the alleged crimes occurred by officers other than Greene, Maer said the case would rely on victim testimony as “pretty hard proof.” He also said Suffolk County has access to location data of police cars, something he hopes will help narrow down officers involved in crimes.

Scrutiny of Suffolk County’s police practices toward Latinos is not new. In 2013, the county Legislature ratified a settlement with the federal Department of Justice, culminating a five-year long investigation following the stabbing death of Ecuadorian Marcelo Lucero, labeled a hate crime.

The 2008 case, which ignited tensions in the county over perceived anti-Hispanic bias within the department, also gained national prominence. That settlement outlines a number of reforms within the department, including a minimum of annual training for officers on removing bias from policing and on identifying hate crimes; designating officers who will interface with local communities to hear concerns and work to solve neighborhood problems; meeting with leaders of the Latino community as well as other minority communities for feedback; and sending all allegations, formal or informal, of police misconduct to the SCPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau for investigation, as well as track complaints and analyze trends.

“As we have done continuously since the beginning of this investigation, we continue to urge victims to contact the district attorney’s office,” Clifford said.

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