Riverhead takes aim at downtown attacks, revives Anti-Bias Task Force

07/17/2014 8:00 AM |
After several attacks in the downtown Riverhead area this year — most of which have targeted Hispanic males — the town will revive its dormant Anti-Bias Task Force, a group 'meant to be a proactive agency in promoting tolerance and understanding.' (Credit: Carrie Miller)

After several attacks in the downtown Riverhead area this year — most of which have targeted Hispanic males — the town will revive its dormant Anti-Bias Task Force, a group ‘meant to be a proactive agency in promoting tolerance and understanding.’ (Credit: Paul Squire)

A string of violent assaults and robberies in the downtown area this year — most of which have targeted Hispanic men — has town leaders responding by reviving a group aimed at bringing the community together.

Dormant almost since its inception in 2007, according to town officials, Riverhead’s Anti-Bias Task Force will soon begin meeting again. Its resurrection resulted from a recent meeting with Rabbi Steven Moss, longtime chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and co-chair of the county’s Inter-Faith Anti-Bias Task Force. That task force was founded 30 years ago, according to the county, as “a proactive agency promoting tolerance and understanding.” Its clergy and citizen members work to “address issues of prejudice and discrimination” and foster the establishment of similar groups in Suffolk’s individual towns.

attacks“To me, what has become so important about the concept of the Anti-Bias Task Force is that it’s where good people in the community come to together and say, ‘No one in the community ever needs to feel helpless against crimes of a racial or bias or prejudicial nature.’ Because if nothing else, there is the support of their community for you,” Rabbi Moss said.

Eight separate robberies or assaults have occurred in the downtown area so far this year, from the most recent near the DMV on Route 58 to an attack in Polish Town in January. All of them occurred at night and Hispanic men have been victims in more than half of them.

In one case, a Hispanic man was left beaten and bloodied on the railroad tracks near Polish Town. Another Hispanic man was beaten with a rock until a car passed by, scaring the assailant into fleeing.

Not all victims have been Hispanic, however. The non-Hispanic victims include one wheelchair-bound man who was targeted by four men and beaten with a blunt object near the railroad tracks on Maple Avenue.

Supervisor Sean Walter and Police Chief David Hegermiller have both said they are not convinced the crimes are racially motivated, calling them more “crimes of opportunity” than of bias.

“You have to protect yourself as a community,” said Mr. Walter. “You or I wouldn’t walk around the railroad tracks with hundreds of dollars in cash.”

Whatever the motive may be, Mr. Walter, who is also police commissioner, and the chief both said they favor resurrecting the Anti-Bias Task Force as a way to reach out to the Hispanic community, whose members often feel unsafe going to the authorities.

“One of the things in Riverhead, so much of this crime is not being reported,” said Councilman George Gabrielsen, who owns a farm. “I know from the workers we have, they are afraid to report it, they’re afraid they’ll get deported or something.” 

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