© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Suffolk County Police to settle lawsuit to be more transparent, accessible to Spanish speakers

A appellate court found Suffolk County Police went too far by putting Susai Francis, an Indian national living on Long Island, back in jail at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Suffolk County to settle lawsuit.

Suffolk County Police on Long Island would pay $3.75 million, improve training and background checks, and publish data about who they pull over in traffic stops as part of a tentative court settlement reached with civil rights activists on Monday.

The settlement, which still must be approved by a federal judge and county lawmakers, stems from a 2015 lawsuit accusing officers of discriminating against Latinos. It expands on an earlier and similar agreement between the county police department and the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of discriminatory policing.

Meena Roldán Oberdick, an attorney with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said the settlement will ensure that the police reforms take hold.

“It will give them more durability and will provide an additional assurance that the reforms will continue even after the DOJ gives up oversight, and even in the face of future transitions in county leadership,” she said.

The agreement with LatinoJustice, a Manhattan-based civil rights organization, adds additional requirements on top of a 2013 agreement that demanded police reforms and federal oversight. Police have struggledto comply with even the most basic terms of the agreement, according to correspondence between Suffolk and the DOJ obtained by Gothamist.

Following a state-mandated police reform in 2021, the county did publish an online dashboard of traffic stop data. It did not include license plate information, the reason people were searched, and actions officers took. The dashboard went offline following a debilitating cyberattack last summer.

For example, the DOJ required that the county collect and analyze traffic stop data. However, the county admitted before U.S. Magistrate Louis Bloom that the data it collected was unreliable and was never analyzed.

This new agreement with LatinoJustice, which does not include an independent monitor, requires the county to publish raw data quarterly on its website so anyone can analyze it. The data will show whether specific people are repeatedly stopped. It will also establish precinct level advisory boards to hear community concerns, better train officers on how to issue minor violations equitably, and conduct background checks to be sure new recruits have never been part of a white supremacists group.

“Our complaint alleged a much wider systemic practice of unconstitutional traffic and pedestrian stops targeting Latinos based on their race and national origin,” Roldán Oberdick said.

In court papers, it was initially argued that the DOJ was already providing oversight. The court rejected this. In a 23-page decision, Judge William Kuntz wrote that Suffolk failed to “make any serious attempt to change their practices.” He added that had Suffolk collected the data correctly, it would have shown that “officers targeted Latinos and subjected them to disparate treatment.”

Instead of answering these claims at trial, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s administration agreed to settle these allegations

If approved, the settlement would end an eight-year class action lawsuit that started after Latino drivers were stopped by Sergeant Scott Greene and extorted for cash. Twenty-one Latino drivers sued the county alleging that police ignored evidence of Greene’s so-called “stop-and-rob” scheme. Advocates said the disparities in traffic enforcement went beyond Greene, and continued after he pleaded guilty.

Deputy County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter said the proposed agreement codifies reforms already underway. Baird-Streeter also touted the county’s efforts to hire more Latino and Hispanic officers.

“That helps to break down misconceptions and preconceived notions we may have about the other,” she said.

County officials say they expect county lawmakers to approve this settlement. The county legislature’s presiding officer, Kevin McCaffrey, did not return calls seeking comment.

The $3.75 million cost to taxpayers includes $2,250,000 in attorney fees and a $75,000 payment to each of the named plaintiffs.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.