PATCHOGUE, N.Y. – Librarian Gilda Ramos says she was stunned the first time Hispanics in her English language class told her that many had been victims of attacks and robberies by marauding gangs of teenagers. "Walking ATMs," is how she describes the workers, who often were robbed on Friday or Saturday night after getting paid from jobs such as dishwashing, construction or landscaping.
The revelation came just days before the fatal stabbing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero in November 2008, only a block or so from the library where Ramos teaches. His attackers later told a judge that targeting Hispanics was something they did for kicks; confident their victims wouldn't call police because they feared questions about their immigration status, or that their complaints would be disregarded.
Seven high school pals are now in prison; the teen who inflicted the fatal blow is serving 25 years. A new PBS documentary portrays efforts by community leaders to put the killing in the past. However, a letter last week to county leaders from the U.S. Justice Department, which began a probe of police policy after the killing, indicates much still needs to be done.
The 28-page missive to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy from the department's Civil Rights Division lists recommendations for improving hate crime investigations and cites vague policies and procedures that preceded Lucero's killing. Michael Goldberger, the chief of the Civil Rights Division in the department's Brooklyn office, said these were just preliminary recommendations; a final report is pending.
The recommendations included making it easier for people to register complaints about the police by placing notices in libraries and other public places, better community outreach and improved communication to officers on the beat. The letter cited some confusion over interpreting what a hate crime is.
"Officers need to be informed clearly that youths are capable of committing hate crimes," the letter says. "The tendency to brush off attacks as 'just kids being kids' fails to recognize the severity of criminal conduct in which minors may engage, as seen from the murder of Marcelo Lucero."
Levy, a staunch critic of illegal immigration and the target of disdain by Hispanic advocates, said in a statement that some recommendations are constructive and will be implemented. An aide noted, for instance, that Levy supports better tracking and classification of "youth disturbances."
"Many others we are already doing and some we disagree with," Levy said of the recommendations.
The Rev. Allan Ramirez, a longtime Levy critic, was dubious. "This report confirms what all of us, community leaders, immigrant advocates, have been saying throughout the years," he said. "We could have saved the Department of Justice a lot of money and a lot of time because we knew all of this already a long time ago."
The PBS documentary "Not In Our Town: Light In The Darkness," airs Wednesday night. Narrated by Academy Award-nominee Alfre Woodard, it chronicles the events that led up to Lucero's killing on a November night near the Patchogue train station. The film follows the court proceedings against the teens — six of the seven pleaded guilty — and reports on efforts made by community leaders to stem anti-immigrant violence.
The hour-long documentary also will be shown in 150 communities across the country and used as a tool to discuss anti-immigrant violence. That initiative is led by Not In Our Town, an organization started in 1995 to highlight stories of communities taking positive action to fight intolerance.
Ramos believes conditions in her Patchogue have improved, and she hopes the documentary will spark further discussions.
"Latinos feel now that they have rights, that they have a voice, they can express their concerns," she said. "They can come to the library, they can go to the precinct and report a crime or do something about a situation that years ago they felt they were not entitled."
She said other changes are evident on the streets of Patchogue, about 60 miles east of New York City.
"There's more civic participation of Latinos. They walk the streets proudly. Before, you could see they would walk in groups because they were afraid something would happen to them. They're feeling way safer, and they feel they have a voice and they can express themselves."
Not all agree.
Joselo Lucero, the victim's brother who has become an advocate for Hispanics, said he moved from the Patchogue area several months ago after becoming involved in a street dispute with people yelling anti-Hispanic epithets, but he did not want to elaborate. He said it was unlikely the people hurling insults knew who he was.
"We have to find some way to create trust in the police department because for many years they are failures," he said. "My brother's name is going to be everywhere, every time. He's going to be a legacy in this community for change."
Suffolk Deputy Police Chief Christopher Bergold said that since Lucero's killing, the police department has worked to improve hate crime awareness training. He said all officers are now required to take an eight-hour refresher course on hate crimes annually at the police academy. In addition to deploying Spanish-speaking officers in Patchogue and elsewhere, all officers have access to Spanish-language interpreters who are available via cell phones, he said.
Police also contend they do not ask crime victims about their immigration status.
"We go to great lengths to respond to hate crime and anti-bias incidents, and we have gone to great lengths to build bridges with the Latino community," Bergold said "We want to make sure no person feels uncomfortable coming to the police."
Patchogue Village Mayor Paul Pontieri concedes that until Lucero's killing, he was unaware that the attacks had been happening in his community. He said he now speaks regularly with Hispanic business owners and is confident that the hate crimes are no longer an issue.
"We worked hard to lessen the anger, to lessen the rhetoric," he said. "The community had every reason on both sides to strike out, and they never did. I don't think there was ever anger or shame. It was like a disappointment. We were disappointed it happened in a place we all love."