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Riverhead criminal incidents reach lowest point in nearly 20 years

The number of criminal incidents reported to the Riverhead Town Police Department in 2017 was the lowest it’s been in any year this century, according to annual crime statistics the department compiles.

The 2,756 criminal incidents reported last year, which include both serious crimes like robbery, assault and rape and lesser offenses, including drug charges, was down 11 percent from 2016. That figure was down 52 percent compared to the year 2000, when 5,747 incidents were reported. 

“I think it’s part of a national trend, and it’s a big question for everybody as to why we’re seeing these low crime rates over time,” said Police Chief David Hegermiller. “I’d love to take all the credit for it, but I’m sure there’s a lot of factors involved.”

The trend dates back to the early 1990s, according to various studies.  

A study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found big decreases in violent crime and murders in the 30 largest cities from 1990 to 2017. A report from the Washington-based Pew Research Center, using FBI statistics, found that the crime rate nationally fell 48 percent between 1993 and 2016.

Other studies found similar nationwide trends.

Riverhead Councilman Jim Wooten, who was a town police officer from 1982 to 2005, believes one reason reports are down is because of new technology, social media and YouTube.

“Crime is more readily thwarted,” he said in an interview. “Everybody has the ability to video things and report it.”

Another reason, he believes, relates to programs initiated years ago in Riverhead schools, such as the Riverhead Community Awareness Program, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and the high school’s Council for Unity, which aim to teach young students about the dangers of drugs. 

“That’s all helped,” Mr. Wooten said. “I’m glad the crime rates are down. I didn’t realized they were down this much.”

Councilman Tim Hubbard, a town cop from 1980 through 2014, agreed.

“There’s a lot of programs that we do that I think bring the police in contact with the younger members of the community,” he said. “That’s part of it. Younger kids have a different perspective on police sometimes than older adults.”

The police department also has Community Oriented Police Enforcement, or COPE, units  that are assigned to high crime areas, and collaborates with other departments such as the Suffolk County District Attorney’s East End Drug Task Force, Mr. Hubbard said.

Here are some of Riverhead’s comparative crime stats:

• Burglaries dropped from 265 in 2000 to 115 in 2016 to 68 in 2017.

• Larcenies dropped from 1,485 in 2000 to 806 in 2016, but rose to 884 last year.

• Assaults fell from 110 in 2000 to 39 in 2016 but then jumped to 68 in 2017. 

• Robberies see-sawed, from 30 in 2000 to 31 in 2016 to 26 in 2017. 

• Controlled substance incidents started at 111 in 2000, dropped to 71 in 2016 and ticked up to 74 in 2017.

• Rape and sex offenses went from 24 in 2000 to 3 in 2016 to 10 in 2017. 

• Driving under the influence decreased steadily, from 282 in 2000 to 141 in 2016 to 125 in 2017. 

• There were no prostitution arrests in 2016 or 2017, but 27 occurred in 2000. 

• The stats show one murder in 2000 and none in 2016 or 2017. 

For Isabelle Gonzalez, who has lived in downtown Riverhead for eight years, last year was the actually the first year living downtown has been a problem. 

“It’s been perfect,” she said. “Until last year.”

That’s when she faced two incidents in which someone tried to break into her house while she was home, and a third incident in which someone broke into her car while it was parked in her driveway.

The first case involved a drunk man who insisted he lived there and refused to leave.  He actually lived in Hampton Bays, she said. 

The second time, two young men knocked on her door and asked if their cellphone was there and whether she was just at Taco Bell.

“I think they were just trying to find out if anyone was home,” Ms. Gonzalez said. She called the police in both cases. The two men, in turned out, had stolen a truck from Flanders and later crashed, she said. 

“I feel safe here,” she said. “For the past six months, I was kind of anxious, wondering why all this happened all of a sudden. But what kept me at peace was that the police responded immediately. I called them and — boom! — they’re here.”

Riverhead has seen worse days. Mr. Wooten recalled the crack epidemic of the mid-1980s.

“It really tore this town apart for almost 15 years,” he said. 

The town acquired and demolished some vacant buildings where drug use was known to be rampant.

Residents and police responded with programs like Neighborhood Watch and DARE in schools, Mr. Wooten said. He added that being a cop is no longer about carrying a nightstick.

“Nowadays, you get out in the community and talk to people,” he said.

CORRECTION: Isabelle Gonzalez has lived downtown for eight years, not 20.

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