Editorial: We can’t arrest our way out of a gang problem

The house at 29 Lewis Street remains boarded up three months after the raid. (Credit: Grant Parpan)
The house at 29 Lewis Street remains boarded up three months after the raid. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Breaking up an open-air drug market might spell relief for the afflicted neighborhood, but it is nothing like ridding a country of an occupying foreign force.

The relief is only temporary, especially in low-income areas.

As long as there are jobless high school dropouts, there will be more gang members and drug dealers ready to take the place of those serving time upstate. Indeed, it seems as if every two to three years the district attorney announces another big bust of a group of people ferrying illegal narcotics from NYC to Riverhead. 

In the case of the November raid at 29 Lewis St. in the long-troubled Millbrook Gables neighborhood, also known as The Greens, District Attorney Thomas Spota said he had never seen anything so blatant in the history of the East End Drug Task Force.

Related coverage: Inside the Lewis Street drug bust

Perhaps there could be no better wake-up call for the people of Riverhead Town than this statement.

Neighbors in Millbrook Gables did the right thing to protect their neighborhood by calling police to the area 122 times over the course of a year — 78 of those calls were to 29 Lewis St. alone. The town police did the right thing by alerting the DA that help was needed in the form of the multi-agency East End Drug Task Force. Riverhead and Southampton police then offered up additional resources to aid in a costly, months-long investigation that has so far yielded over a dozen arrests.

But what’s to prevent the scene from playing out again and again here? The approaches are simple, albeit not simply executed.

The region needs better paying jobs for its residents, with leadership coming from Washington. The state needs to invest heavily in effective, proven programs that reduce dropout rates among teens, especially in the face of the more rigorous learning standards that threaten to increase those rates. Locally, the town needs to beef up its code enforcement efforts to crack down on overcrowded and illegal rentals and absentee landlords.

Lastly, Riverhead remains one of the few Long Island towns that does not have a recreational center such as a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club.

Various efforts to build such a center have stalled, and the void only becomes more glaring as facilities are built elsewhere, such as in Bellport.

Riverhead must do better by its youth and any viable effort to establish a rec center deserves the full consideration and support of residents, potential donors and elected officials.

Combating society’s ills can be costly up-front, but failing to invest sufficient time, attention and money toward that end will prove costlier in the long run — in very many ways.