Crime on the decline over past 10 years in Riverhead

02/07/2014 12:00 PM |

Barbaraellen Koch photo | Officer Dan Hogan on patrol on East Main Street in downtown Riverhead.

Last year, the number of criminal incidents reported in Riverhead was at its lowest point in more than a decade, continuing a downward trend that began in the early 2000s, according to annual police data.

While the direct cause of the decline isn’t fully known, local business owners, town officials and law enforcement experts believe that stronger community outreach and increased patrols, along with a nationwide drop in crime, may have played a role, leaving some optimistic that the overall trend will continue.

“The police department is doing a fantastic job,” said Town Supervisor Sean Walter. “We’ve been active in our community-based policing downtown, and I think it’s paying off.”

The Riverhead Police Department responded to 3,502 incidents within the town’s borders in 2013, nearly 300 fewer than in 2012, according to annual reports published by the department.

And while 2012 had the highest reported crime since 2009 — when 3,830 incidents were reported — an analysis of reports from the past 10 years shows a nearly 27 percent drop in criminal incidents over the past decade.

That decrease has come as Riverhead Town’s population has continued to grow. According to U.S. census data, the town population grew to 33,506 in 2010, representing a 21 percent increase since 2000.

The decline in reported crimes also far outpaces the 10.7 percent drop in crime across the country over a similar, nine-year period from 2004 to 2012, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. National statistics for 2013 were not yet available.

According to the town police department’s annual reports, there were slightly fewer robberies in 2013 than the year before, down to 27 from 29, and assaults remained even at 40.

Criminal mischief reports dropped from 354 in 2012 to 297 last year, and Riverhead also saw fewer thefts in 2013 — 1,020 incidents, the lowest reported in the previous four years.

No prostitution arrests were made in 2013, the third year in a row without such an arrest, the annual reports show.

However, the annual numbers show more burglaries were reported in town in 2013 — 193, up from 168 in 2012.

There were 2,157 car accidents in Riverhead in 2013, a 10 percent jump year-over-year.

Driving under the influence arrests increased to 209 in 2013, the highest total since 2001.

Law enforcement officials have said the increase in reported drunk driving incidents is due to stronger enforcement by Riverhead police in partnership with the East End DWI task force, a collaborative effort, started in 2012, among East End police departments, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and other law enforcement agencies.

Mr. Walter said it’s not surprising that a growing town like Riverhead would see more DWIs, but he also said Riverhead’s officers are among the most diligent in the county; last year, a Riverhead officer was named one of the county’s top DWI cops, after he had made more than 100 arrests.

The supervisor added that while high-profile crimes still occur — a January shooting incident downtown remains an open case — the police department has been effective in catching criminals. On Jan. 25, an arrest was made less than 24 hours after a homeless man had reportedly beaten another man with a rock in Polish Town.

Mr. Walter also cited a drive-by shooting on Third Street last February when seven shots were fired into a house with families and children inside. Two police officers on patrol near the area heard the gunshots and were able to arrest the alleged perpetrators just a few blocks away. The officers’ actions are representative of the police department’s efforts, Mr. Walter said.

“You come into this town and you do something, chances are you’re getting caught,” he said. “And if you come to downtown, chances are you’re getting caught before you even leave the downtown area.”

Town Councilman James Wooten, a former town police officer who retired in 2005, said this past decade’s success was made possible by efforts started decades ago in response to an illegal drug epidemic that swept through Riverhead.

In the late 1980s, crack cocaine was a major problem for the department, he said.

“That really hit this town very hard,” Mr. Wooten said. “The police couldn’t keep up with it.” Law enforcement and civic groups in town started a series of community-based programs — such as the Youth Bureau, Community Awareness Program and the Council for Unity — to combat the drug and gang activity within the town. Mr. Wooten headed a neighborhood watch program during his time on the force.

Over time, those programs paid off, he said. “There was an outcry in this community,” Mr. Wooten said. “We lost a whole generation to crack, but by the late ’90s and the early 2000s, we really started to reap the benefits of [those civic programs].”

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said he believes that community programs, especially those involving students, have made a positive impact.

“Us being out there and telling everyone to be aware and to be involved, I think that’s very helpful,” he said. “Now I think we have a decent presence there and I think we have a great relationship with the school.”

Since those programs were established, murders dropped from four or five per year to between zero and two. No murders were reported in Riverhead Town last year, according to police statistics.

The shooting death of Demitri Hampton during a home invasion in Flanders last January is not included in Riverhead’s statistics because the incident occurred in Southampton Town and thus wasn’t in Riverhead police’s jurisdiction.

Only one murder — the killing of Mirian Yohana Garcia Mancilla behind the Riverhead DMV in 2012 — occurred within the town in the past four years.

While the Riverhead police force made 101 controlled substance arrests in 2013, up from 60 the previous year, law enforcement officials have said the jump is due to an increase in enforcement with the aid of the East End Drug Task Force, not an increase in offenses.

R-MAIN-02-06-14.inddChief Hegermiller said that the department’s COPE unit has also made a significant impact.

Mr. Wooten said he believes the more recent drop in overall reported incidents over the past 10 years may be due in part to a bigger federal safety net for those dealing with poverty. Programs like unemployment benefits — which have been expanded in the past decade — have increased opportunities to become productive for those who once may have turned to crime instead, he said.

“Crime is driven by a need,” Mr. Wooten said. “Even though things are still bad out there, people are taking advantage of the federal help, and the need to go out and steal has lessened a lot.”

But Mr. Wooten cautioned that some crime may simply be going unreported, noting that the fast-growing Hispanic population in town may not feel comfortable enough with police to report criminal incidents. While the police department has taken steps to bridge a language barrier between the Hispanic community and the police force, Mr. Wooten said more outreach by the department — such as hiring a Spanish-speaking police officer — would make the town safer.

“Information is golden,” Mr. Wooten said. “The more we know, the more we can secure our communities.”

Michael Higginson, coordinator of Suffolk County Community College’s criminal justice program, said that while it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact reason crime continues to drop nationwide, community-based policing is one proven way to reduce crime.

Neighborhood watches — collaborations among community members who look out for suspicious activity and call a special phone number to alert police — allow officers to learn about crimes even when they can’t patrol an area. In addition, increased patrols and aggressive enforcement of minor crimes send a warning to would-be criminals, he said.

“That sends out a message that crime will not be tolerated in that neighborhood,” Mr. Higginson said in an interview.

But the more rigorous enforcement has consequences: It can lead to harassment of citizens by police, eroding the trust between the public and law enforcement, he said.

Mr. Higginson — a former precinct commander in New York City — said it is essential that police departments maintain strong ties with the communities they serve.

“You have to have the community on your side,” he said, noting that some departments have pursued hiring more diverse police forces to better connect with minority communities, something the Riverhead Town Board and police department are now considering.

Barbaraellen Koch photo | A Riverhead Community Oriented Police Enforcement vehicle blocks off East Main Street for the opening of the Suffolk Theater last year.

Supervisor Walter said the police department will continue its patrols downtown, which were increased early last year in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents within a few weeks, including a fatal hit-and-run on East Main Street and a robbery just north of the Long Island Aquarium.

Mr. Walter also said that filling the streets with more people attending street festivals and grand openings for businesses can help serve as a deterrent.

“When you put more people in places to see things, less crime happens,” he said. “Criminals don’t want to be seen.”

The additional police officers and foot traffic have had a noticeable impact on the area, said Steve Wirth, owner of Digger’s restaurant on West Main Street.

“In the past year, it seems better and it feels like there’s a bigger police presence,” he said. “I think that they’ve made a positive impact … I love it. I wish there was more of it.”

Mr. Wirth, who took over Digger’s in 2005 and lives downtown, said the patrols have not only made downtown more appealing but they have also led to increased profitability for his business in the summer, the best in his nine years of business.

“I’ll attribute that to everything that the town is doing,” he said.

More recently, the opening of a farmers market on Main Street Saturday saw his business for the day skyrocket, Mr. Wirth said.

“It was the busiest Saturday in years, all because of that farmers market,” he said.

Though crime has decreased, the presence of several sober homes near downtown remains an outstanding concern for some business owners, Supervisor Walter said. Yet he said the homes will stay, as he wishes the town to remain “compassionate” to its residents in need.

Mr. Wirth agreed that sober homes and rehabilitation houses have a place in the community, though he questioned why they need to be so close to downtown’s business district.

Still, the restaurant owner said he is looking forward to this summer and hopes to spruce up his storefront now that business has improved. He recognizes that the town’s crime issues began decades ago and will take time to eliminate.

“The foundation that was laid before these last three years is deeply entrenched, and to remove it is probably going to take an equal amount of time,” Mr. Wirth said. “But the steps have been made in the right direction … The town has made the right strides. They’re doing the right thing.

“If we froze this moment and revisited it five years from now, I guarantee our story would be, ‘Can you see what an amazing turnaround this place has seen?’ ” he said.

psquire@timesreview.com

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