CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) — A suburban New York police department that has been the target of Justice Department scrutiny and criticism from a civil rights group is being accused in a lawsuit of systematically targeting Latinos for unfounded, race-based traffic stops, and in some cases, robberies.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Long Island, claims Latinos were either robbed or given unjustified traffic citations by members of the Suffolk County police department. Twenty-one Latinos living in the county east of New York City are seeking class-action status so that potentially hundreds or thousands can add their grievances to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs were not identified by name.
They are seeking punitive and compensatory damages, as well as changes in police department policies and procedures.
"People of color should be able to walk and drive the streets of Suffolk County without fear of being harassed and robbed, not by street criminals, but by SCPD officers," said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. Cartagena and about two dozen supporters and members of other advocacy groups held a news conference Thursday to discuss the lawsuit.
The complaint alleges that for more than a decade Latinos have been targeted by police because of their ethnicity.
The police department issued a four-paragraph statement seeking to refute the allegations, saying its 2,300-member force is "proud of our record of working with the many diverse communities in Suffolk County including the Latino community."
The statement said efforts have been made to reach out to the Latino community with initiatives like minority recruitment, community outreach and enhanced cultural sensitivity training, including Spanish language instruction. It also pointed to the 2014 arrest of one if its members, Sgt. Scott Greene on charges he was targeting Latino motorists for robbery while on patrol, grabbing $50 or $100 cash at a time from as far back as 2008.
Greene has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. The statement Thursday said Greene's alleged actions "are not representative of the members of the Suffolk County Police Department."
The lawsuit cited many of the cases that allegedly involved Greene, but also alleged that other officers had also stolen from Latino drivers, including at least once since Greene's arrest last year.
A press release accompanying the lawsuit claimed that the county district attorney's office "purportedly has audio tapes of an officer, other than Sgt. Greene, committing and orchestrating this criminal activity yet no criminal charges have been filed concerning these troubling allegations."
Robert Clifford, a spokesman for District Attorney Thomas Spota, said, "This allegation of the existence of a 'purported' audio tape is false. We do not have such a tape, nor was the existence of such a tape ever raised before today's press conference."
Clifford added that investigators interviewed 50 potential victims and witnesses. "There is no credible evidence that Greene acted with other police officers," he said.
The police department came under Justice Department scrutiny following the 2008 hate crime killing of an Ecuadorean immigrant and reached an agreement with the agency in 2013 to enhance investigations of hate crimes and bias incidents. The killing focused attention on Suffolk County, which has seen an influx of immigrants from Central and South America in the past 15 years.
Some speakers at Thursday's press conference called for the Justice Department to reopen its investigation in Suffolk County. The Justice Department press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report after the 2008 killing of immigrant Marcelo Lucero, documenting repeated attacks on Hispanics in Suffolk County since 2000. Seven Long Island teenagers were convicted in the Lucero case. The victim's brother, Joselo Lucero, was among the speakers at Thursday's press conference.