2013 Public Servant of the Year: Dennis Cavanagh

01/02/2014 1:00 PM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead Police Officer Dennis Cavanagh helps lead the annual ‘Say No to Drugs’ March with Pulaski Street students in 2012.

On a cold night last February, longtime Riverhead police officer Dennis Cavanagh was doing what he always does: answering a call.

A woman was experiencing chest pain and Mr. Cavanagh, a CPR instructor, came to the scene near Riverhead Fire Department headquarters to see if he could help.

Moments after the ambulance left, Mr. Cavanagh heard the gunshots: “ ‘Pop pop pop pop pop pop’ coming from the Third Street area south of us,” he recalled shortly after the incident.

Just a few minutes later, with the help of a fellow officer, Mr. Cavanagh had tracked down and nabbed the four people who had allegedly fired seven shots through a Third Street home in a drive-by shooting. One of the men had already reloaded his gun, police said.

The swift arrest, coupled with his illustrious 27-year career on the force, is why Mr. Cavanagh is our choice for Public Servant of the Year.

Mr. Cavanagh has served his community as the sole member of the department’s highway patrol and is a key leader in training other officers. He served with the U.S. Marine Corps in the late 1970s, left the service in 1982 and was hired by the town soon after. He’s been patrolling the streets ever since.

“I guess I always had it in me to be a cop,” he said in an interview last year. “I never regret working here. I always loved this job.”

Police Chief David Hegermiller, who was Mr. Cavanagh’s training officer when he was first hired, said the veteran’s calm demeanor makes him a great representative for the force.

“Dennis is very charismatic,” Chief Hegermiller said. “He deals with people very well.”

Mr. Cavanagh also deals with other officers well; he has served as a police trainer within the department for nearly a decade.

“The training keeps you current, keeps it fresh in your mind,” Chief Hegermiller said.

Mr. Cavanagh relied on that training while arresting the drive-by suspects last year. He noted that the manner in which the group was apprehended — on a felony traffic stop as opposed to a routine stop — is something the department trains on time and again.

Mr. Cavanagh got all four people — later identified by authorities as Jasmine Parsons, 19, of Mastic; Jordan Harrell, 18, of Medford; Eric Baldwin Jr., 18, of Bellport; and Jeffrey Despeines, 21, of Centereach — out of the car. Mr. Despeines was armed with a loaded gun at the time of his arrest and shell casings were found inside the vehicle.

All but Mr. Despeines have pleaded guilty to their involvement in the incident, according to court records.

The arrest was a prime example of Mr. Cavanagh’s continued vigilance while serving his community, Chief Hegermiller said.

“It was great that he was down there and that he was able to respond,” the chief said. “Always to be out there and always to be aware … He did a great job.”

psquire@timesreview.com