Riverhead group talks downtown crime with police chief

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Police Chief David Hegermiller.

Speeding on Main Street and crime in downtown Riverhead — or rather the perception of crime — and what local residents can do to help dominated the conversation at the latest I Love Riverhead group meeting Wednesday.

Group members asked Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller to discuss several high-profile crimes in the area in the past month. In November, an 18-year-old man was arrested after allegedly shooting two people in separate incidents, a downtown deli owner reported an armed robbery and there was a home invasion on East Avenue the day before Thanksgiving.

But Chief Hegermiller characterized Riverhead Town as a safe place that unfortunately has earned a bad reputation over the years.

He said that despite those recent crimes, today the town is just about the safest it has been in his years on the force.

“I think it’s a safe place,” the chief told about 20 people at Wednesday’s meeting at the Riverhead Free Library. “Crime does exist, bad people do exist … sometimes they happen to be in your neighborhood.”

While Riverhead Town has had the highest crime rate out of any East End town in years past, today crime here is on par with neighboring Southampton Town, he said, adding that many areas, including the River Point Apartments complex on East Main Street, were much safer than they have been in decades past.

“That was a horror in the 70s,” he said of the subsidized housing complex.

And those in attendance agreed.

“I think it’s gotten a heck of a lot better,” said Liz Stokes, Riverhead Free Library circulation director.

Still, many residents voiced concerns over prostitution and drug use in the area. An East Avenue resident who preferred her name not be used reported that someone tried to break into her home recently. That had her thinking of moving out of town.

“We have a 5-year-old daughter who is afraid to sleep in her room,” she said. “If someone is high on drugs, what are we supposed to do?”

The chief said the department does not have its own narcotics squad and relies on the Suffolk County East End Drug Task Force for undercover investigations. He also noted that the Riverhead Police Department has few minorities and no native Spanish speakers, which makes it difficult for his officers to go undercover in certain neighborhoods.

As for prostitution, he said the department has files on known area prostitutes, but noted it is difficult to catch them in the act. But he said the number of prostitutes working in the area has shrunk.

He also urged residents to report all suspected crimes in their neighborhoods, or wherever they see something happened.

“You have to call and let me know,” he said.

As for speeding on Main Street, Chief Hegermiller suggested residents write letters to the town’s traffic safety committee, of which he is a part. The committee makes recommendations to the Town Board as well as the state Department of Transportation.

“I take my life into my hands almost every day,” said Todd Gardner, an aquaculturist at the Long Island Aquarium.

The chief said speeding in town is the number one complaint he hears.

The best way to combat crime and a negative perception in the area, those in attendance agreed, is the continued redevelopment of Main Street, and events, which bring families downtown.

“There’s got to be things for people to come and see,” said Laurie Nigro, co-founder of downtown’s River and Roots Community Garden.

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