The Riverhead Town Board hired five new town police officers Tuesday to replace five cops retiring from the force.
The crop of new recruits includes two war veterans, a university police officer and a fluent Polish-speaker, though none are Spanish-speakers – something the police chief said earlier this year could help the force.
The officers were hired on the same day a new contract between the police union and the town was approved, officials said. The new recruits will be hired under the new contract.
Supervisor Sean Walter said he is confident the town made the best choices with the latest recruits.
“We have [a] future police chief in this new round of hiring,” he said.
The five retiring officers will take advantage of a retirement incentive plan adopted by the town this year that will pay out a lump sum of $1,000 per year of service up to $25,000 to the retiring officers, who all have at least 20 years of experience.
The new hires — Sean Evans, Daniel Hogan, Patryk Loszewski, David VonVoigt and Christopher Burns — will enter the force at the bottom of the pay scale, while the retiring officers are at the top, saving the town about $250,000 over the next several years, Mr. Walter said.
Mr. Evans and Mr. Hogan are war veterans from either Iraq or Afghanistan (it wasn’t immediately clear), with Mr. Hogan earning a Purple Heart. Mr. Loszewski is from a local Polish family, Mr. Burns is already a police officer at a university, while Mr. VonVoigt comes from the family of a retired Riverhead police officer, Mr. Walter said.
All five are Riverhead residents, he added, stressing that the new hires were all “outstanding” candidates.
Four of the officers will report to the Suffolk County police academy in Brentwood when classes begin Dec. 17. They will be formally sworn in at the Town Board’s Dec. 18 meeting, Mr. Walter said.
The hirings come nearly a year after some town leaders expressed interest in hiring Spanish-speaking officers to help better police the town.
A News-Review special report in February found the Riverhead Police Department has no native Spanish-speakers and is the least diverse town police department on the North or South fork.
Police Chief David Hegermiller, as well as police experts interviewed by the News-Review, said in that report that hiring officers who speak Spanish would be an asset to the department, allowing police to gain better insight into Hispanic communities.
The town used a Riverhead-specific civil service list to hire this year’s new police recruits. A list that highlighted potential officers who can speak Spanish was also offered this year, but town officials decided not to use it.
When asked why the town chose not to use that list to hire some officers, Chief Hegermiller said it was the Town Board’s decision, not his.
“You would have to ask them,” he said.
Mr. Walter said his goal was to hire “the best possible police officers” from the main list.
“That’s what I need,” he said. “I’m not going to focus solely on somebody because he’s bilingual.”
Mr. Walter said he would like to see Spanish-speaking officers on the force but will not pull from a separate list to identify them, saying that the town will continue to use the regular list and pull a Spanish-speaker from that list if possible.
County officials have said applicants on the Spanish-speaking list are not of lower quality than those on the regular list.
Councilman Jim Wooten, a retired Riverhead police officer, disagreed with Mr. Walter’s assertion that the best officers would be found on the regular list.
“Just because you had a good score doesn’t mean you’re the best police officer,” he said. “Sometimes the best police officer is the one that can relate to the community.”
Mr. Wooten said the town asked the county only for the regular list because there was no consensus on the Town Board to support using the Spanish-speaking list.
But, he said, the police department should be more focused on increasing diversity and connecting with growing minority populations. The police department has Rosetta Stone software available to officers so they can teach themselves Spanish, but its use is optional, and Mr. Wooten believes the police department must do more.
“I think whenever there’s a language barrier there’s an issue, period … Whenever there’s lack of comprehension there’s going to be an issue,” he said.
Mr. Wooten cited church and school programs in town that teach Spanish-speakers English, and said the department should “meet [Hispanics] somewhat halfway” and attempt to learn their language too.
He said he was planning to look into training in basic Spanish phrases for Riverhead’s officers to help in their police work.
“There’s no reason why we can’t have training,” Mr. Wooten said. “I don’t want everybody to be bilingual but [they should learn] basic commands: ‘Stop,’ ‘Identification,’ ‘Do you need help?’ ‘Where does it hurt?’ ”
As for the new contract between the town and the Riverhead Police Benevolent Association, it was approved 4-1 by the board. Councilman John Dunleavy opposed the new contract, saying the PBA should have made more concessions.
The approved PBA contract stated that the academy rate (the salary a recruit earns while in training), steps 1-5 in police salaries and three detective grades salaries will be increased by 2 percent retroactively. Effective Jan. 1, 2013, those same grade salaries increase by another 2 percent. On Jan. 1, 2014, those same grades increase another 2 percent, and the same will happen Jan. 1, 2015.
A new salary schedule applies to all employees hired after the new contract was approved, including the five latest recruits. This schedule adds an additional step in salary increases so that it will take officers longer to reach the top pay level.