Is Main Street safe? No it is not. There are many factors that lead to this dilemma, just as there are many solutions needed to correct it. Let’s start with the recent rash of armed robberies. Downtown businesses are struggling to begin with, and they work very hard at becoming part of the success story that this town truly needs for its revitalization. Having armed thugs walk into a business and forcibly demand money is an extremely frightening and dangerous situation for any local business owner. Just ask Barth’s Drug Store. There needs to be more police presence downtown – period. This does not mean simply enlisting one part time police officer to walk around. It means confronting the problem with fully trained professional police officers, properly equipped to handle this growing problem.
The Riverhead Police Department is an extremely talented police force, comprised of quick-thinking, brave officers. As a recently retired Riverhead Police Detective, I am immensely proud to have worked with these ladies and gentlemen for the past 32 years. There needs to be better deployment of those officers to combat the situation our good Town faces.
This initiative has to begin with the Chief of Police. Years ago Main Street was struggling with a similar problem while former Supervisor Jim Stark was in office. He worked with then Police Chief, Joe Grattan, and together they created a downtown strategy wherein officers were deployed in squads and worked varying shifts to prevent low level crimes and violation of Town codes. In turn, this deterred more serious crimes from occurring because of the added police presence. Arrests were made and people were held accountable for their behavior, and the harm that they brought to our community and local businesses. Main Street was once again a safe place to be a patron, shop owner, or visitor.
Without question, perception plays a part in the way that out of town visitors’ view our town. When they visit the Aquarium, get a bite to eat, or take a stroll along the riverfront and encounter a person “sleeping it off,” or stumbling around in an intoxicated state, their perception of Riverhead is that it may not be a safe place. A squad of police officers assigned to downtown can, and will fix those unsightly encounters. It can also be done with minimal overtime as the COPE unit can be re-deployed to address the community’s needs.
It is not just Main Street and the parking lots that need attention. The side streets to the north of Main Street are home to numerous rental houses that shelter a criminal element. These are issues that Town Code Enforcement Department with the assistance of the Police Department needs to address as a unified front. The Town Code Enforcement Department is severely understaffed to handle all of the housing violations in this town. Give them the help they need. Landlords need to be held more accountable in policing their investments, and making sure that their tenants are not vagrants with little, to no connection to our Town, whose only contribution is adding to the crime rate and number of Code violations.
Additionally, let us not forget that we have the Suffolk County Correctional Facility emptying former prisoners onto our streets, a methadone clinic downtown, and the Social Service Department nearby. This is not to say that everybody coming out of jail, treating a substance abuse problem or requiring financial assistance is the problem. In fact, many of these people become productive members of society after getting back on their feet. Unfortunately, the individuals that do not seek a more virtuous path only add to the downtown problem. The attraction of Main Street is significant for a person with such ill intent, and the only way to handle the situation is to make it uncomfortable for them to set up shop. Bring in the added police presence and they will disappear.
In my opinion, the Guardian Angels are not the answer. The Riverhead Police Department is more than capable of handling the situation, and best trained to do so. The recent rash of Hispanic individuals being the victims of robbery has a couple of common denominators that need to be addressed as well. First, using a bank for one’s life savings rather than walking around with a substantial amount of cash, would be a start. Second, stumbling around intoxicated with your life savings on you, leaves you exposed and vulnerable to becoming a victim of robbery, or worse. Many of these incidents have occurred time after time, and the victim is frequently so intoxicated that he or she cannot even remember what happened. This is the fundamentals of crime prevention 101.
Unless the Guardian Angels can assist in those areas, I do not want their presence in this town. They talk of Riverhead being the epicenter of Hispanic gangs. The purported statistics of Hispanic gang members they refer to are locked up inside the Suffolk County Correctional Facility. They have been placed there from all over Suffolk County, and not just Riverhead. At this juncture, I think it is important to note that there are many hard-working, well-intended Hispanic individuals and families that reside in our great Town, and who undoubtedly seek some of the same changes I have noted in this letter. However, the police have enough on their plates without having to worry about the Guardian Angels stirring things up, not to mention the perception that comes along with their presence and involvement in our community.
I implore the Riverhead Town Board to work with the Riverhead Police Department and the Code Enforcement Department in setting up a manageable solution to the ever-growing problem of downtown Riverhead, so that our Town and local businesses can thrive.
Why? Because Riverhead deserves better.
Tim Hubbard is a retired police detective and current candidate for Town Board.