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Sgt. Scott Greene

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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.

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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.