We don’t need another robbery or a similar incident possibly related to gang activity as evidence that downtown Riverhead has a problem with crime. It has plagued the area for years, and it’s worth noting that, unfortunately, downtown Riverhead is not the only place in Suffolk County that could use, for lack of a better phrase, some cleaning up. It’s also worth admitting that crime can never be completely eliminated there or anywhere else.
Police can’t be everywhere at once, and the town is too strapped for cash to pay for any more overtime than it absolutely has to, so Supervisor Sean Walter and Police Chief David Hegermiller are hoping that volunteers with the Guardian Angels can help curb crime in the area.
Unfortunately — as occurred when the Angels went to Greenport — that effort isn’t getting off on the right foot. While Mr. Walter hasn’t been shy about welcoming the group to Riverhead, the rest of the Town Board was not invited to a recent conversation between the police chief and Angels leader Curtis Sliwa about how the group is expected to help improve quality of life downtown. They should have been included. The rest of the public — not to mention the foot soldiers in the police department — should also be involved in the discussion.
As of now, only a select few people in town know what expectations for the Guardian Angels are and how their success will actually be measured, which is concerning.
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The Angels’ effectiveness in Greenport remains open to debate, which is why it’s hard to say whether bringing them to downtown Riverhead is a good idea. Mr. Sliwa has claimed the organization has stemmed violence in Greenport, but that’s hard to confirm that since the group isn’t talking to the Southold police at all. (In addition, several Greenport business owners have told us they haven’t even seen the Guardian Angels on patrol there.)
Before stepping onto the streets in Greenport, Mr. Sliwa made a public presentation to bring members of the community into the fold. It would be beneficial to have a similar meeting in Riverhead before patrols start — which is planned for next week.
The conversation about improving safety downtown, however, wouldn’t be complete without mentioning police staffing and patrols. The costs and benefits of consistently increasing a downtown police presence — whether that’s through paying overtime, adding a full-time officer or redeploying current resources — need to be considered seriously. A seasonal increase in patrols (planned to start once Memorial Day hits) is no doubt beneficial, and we do hope the Guardian Angels help in the area, but if perceptions are to improve, the public needs to feel secure year round.
Downtown business owners, residents and visitors deserve an open and forthright discussion about a long-term approach to safety in the area. What limitations and challenges does the town face? What does the town hope to gain from bringing in the Guardian Angels (if it does happen)? How does the town plan to create a safer downtown Riverhead?
Officers are doing their best, but it is up to town leaders to craft and execute a plan that will keep downtown safe for years to come. The Guardian Angels, and seasonal increases in patrols, could very well be steps toward that goal, but they should be part of a much larger — and completely open — conversation.