Chief’s meeting with Guardian Angels irks board members

Curtis Sliwa at a meeting in Greenport last November. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)
Curtis Sliwa at a meeting in Greenport last November. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

A day after Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller met with leaders of the Guardian Angels to establish a Riverhead chapter of the volunteer anti-crime group, Supervisor Sean Walter’s fellow Town Board members say they were blindsided by the effort and that bringing the Angels into town could exacerbate a negative image for downtown.

But those who favor the plan — namely, the chief and the supervisor — say that any crime-fighting help could be good help and that welcoming the Guardian Angels could bridge a gap between the town police and the local Hispanic community. Mr. Walter said that because the Guardian Angels are volunteers, no board vote is needed to allow them to come to Riverhead.

“We as a town work with all volunteer groups that work for the betterment of Riverhead,” he said.

At Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, Riverhead resident Trevor Hardin spoke about “racial tensions” and Mr. Walter suggested he get involved with the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force or the Guardian Angels. The supervisor said Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa would meet with town police officials that night about setting up a Riverhead chapter.

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Chief Hegermiller said in an interview Wednesday that the Guardian Angels would set up shop in Riverhead in about two weeks and would be looking to recruit volunteers.

No other Town Board members expressed support for the plan.

“None of us knew about this,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said Wednesday morning “We found out about this at the Town Board meeting, that the Guardian Angels were coming. We haven’t had any discussions about the Guardian Angels as a board. It should have been brought up at work session.”

“As a retired police officer, I don’t think this is a good idea,” said Councilman Jim Wooten, a former Riverhead PBA president. “It sends the wrong message to our visitors.”

Mr. Wooten suggested instead that people attend crime prevention programs offered by the police to show them ways to stay safe.

The current president of the Riverhead PBA, Detective Dixon Palmer, also said he doesn’t think the move is necessary and believes his union will oppose it.

“I think a lot of questions have to be answered first by the police department,” Councilman George Gabrielsen said. “Do they feel they’re losing control here? I don’t think it sends the right message to the community … I would say I’m leaning against it. Somebody has got to show me statistics that this is needed.”

In fact, statistics released last year — numbers for 2014 have yet to be released by the police department — showed that the number of criminal incidents reported in Riverhead overall had fallen over the previous decade. Robberies and assaults did not increase from 2012 to 2013, the numbers showed. However, a string of assaults was reported in the downtown area last year, with Hispanic males the predominant victims.

Councilman John Dunleavy, also a retired Riverhead police officer, said that compared to places like Huntington Station, Riverhead doesn’t have that much crime. He said he thinks the fact that Riverside in Southampton Town, one of the poorest areas in the county, has the same Zip code leads people to believe that the crime there is happening in Riverhead Town.

Chief Hegermiller said Wednesday that the Guardian Angels definitely plan to begin patrols in Riverhead in about two weeks. Tuesday night’s meeting with Mr. Sliwa and another Guardian Angels official was a discussion of logistics, he said. The Guardian Angels also toured the town, he said.

The Guardian Angels wear bright red uniforms and berets and do not carry guns, the chief said.

“Hopefully, the Guardian Angels will be able to bridge the language barrier a little better than we can,” he said. “Having more information coming in is always better.”

The chief also said the Guardian Angels were interested in setting up an office in the former Riverhead train station, a location Mr. Walter said would be a good fit.

“It’s a positive influence for the downtown area, for Railroad Avenue and for Polish Town,” Mr. Walter said. “And I think it’s going to be a great first step in trying to build relationships in the Hispanic community.”

Officials from the Guardian Angels couldn’t be reached for comment. However, Mr. Sliwa said Wednesday morning on his WABC Radio show, “Curtis and Kuby,” that he had been given the green light to start patrols. Mr. Sliwa made headlines in the city last week when he was suspended from the weekly “Inside City Hall” show on television station NY1 for making a rude comment about a New York City politician. However, he told the Daily News that the comment had been made in satire.

On Wednesday morning, Mr. Sliwa also posted a picture of himself on his “Curtis and Kuby” Facebook page posing next to the Polish Town sign.

The photo caption read: “Patrolling in Polish Town (Riverhead) where there are no Polish people left, only Mexicans.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Supervisor Sean Walter met with the Guardian Angels.