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Riverhead Democrats outline plan to address ‘chronically understaffed’ police department

The Democratic candidates seeking office in November’s election have outlined a “Restore the Riverhead Police Department Plan” to address what they describe as a “chronically understaffed” department suffering from burnout.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who’s running for town supervisor, and town council candidates Evelyn Hobson-Womack and Juan Micieli-Martinez, spoke Tuesday during a press conference in the downtown parking lot where the proposed Town Square is slated for development.

“When Juan, Evelyn and I are elected, public safety and the Riverhead Police Department will be our first priority,” Ms. Kent said.

Ms. Hobson-Womack, a recently retired Riverhead detective, said when she was hired in 1993 the department had approximately 85 sworn officers. Current police staffing levels are about the same, she said. The recent census showed that Riverhead’s population has grown by more than 7% in the last decade alone. 

The short-staffing “places an additional significant and dangerous burden on our current police officers,” Ms. Hobson-Womack said, adding that it leads to unsafe levels of overtime and forces police leadership to move officers out of the downtown area to cover other sectors.

“Riverhead Town leadership has failed to increase the size of our department,” she said.

Ms. Kent said the first priority of the plan would be to fill all current vacancies as soon as possible “via improved and expanding hiring practices.”

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who’s running for reelection as a Republican, said seven officers hired by Riverhead are currently attending the police academy and the department anticipates that another four officers who have been cleared for training will begin a police academy class in November. She said her opponent failed to mention that police academy classes were canceled for a year during the COVID-19 pandemic and that departments across the state are racing to train officers.

During the pandemic, Ms. Aguiar said, Riverhead saw an “all-time low in crime” while other municipalities saw increases. 

“Our officers have stepped up and have continued to keep us safe,” she said. “Riverhead has a great police department. I will not permit someone to try and tarnish the reputation of our great police department for political personal gains.”

Ms. Aguiar said she will continue meeting with the police chief and PBA to all “work cohesively.”

The second goal outlined by the Democrats Tuesday would be to initiate a study to determine proper police force levels for a town of Riverhead’s size that has “multi-faceted law enforcement challenges.” Ms. Kent said such a study must include the cumulative impacts of completed and proposed high-density apartment buildings in the downtown area.

She noted that Southold Town’s police advisory committee recently completed a report that identified concerns about staffing and other issues within its department. That report included recommendations such as bolstering the town’s community response unit and establishing an office tasked with juvenile cases and arrests, as well as school outreach. The study proposed for Riverhead would follow a similar approach.

Other aspects of the Democrats’ proposed plan would involve initiating policies and practices to ensure the department “more accurately reflects our diverse community” while also making sure the department embraces the “community-policing model,” Ms. Kent said.

The department should also seek assistance from Suffolk County and local advocacy groups to help address homelessness, Ms. Kent said. The plan would also focus on ensuring that all future development assists in funding the department so as to not overburden taxpayers, she said.

“The cornerstone of our town’s future is a safe Riverhead,” Ms. Kent said.

Ms. Hobson-Womack said the candidates have spoken to police officers who expressed feelings of “fatigue, burnout and low morale.”

A group of elected officials, police, clergy, business owners, civic leaders and others recently completed a Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan for the town that was mandated by the governor’s office in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. The group, known as the Riverhead Law Enforcement Advisory Panel, held public listening sessions and conducted a survey to formulate before its report was finalized and submitted to the state.

Asked specifically about that plan, Ms. Kent said it wasn’t enough.

“All of us are out and about in the community and talk regularly with people, residents who have concerns about safety, and we have spoken with officers and we are hearing they are really stressed,” she said. “It is shocking that our number of officers has not kept pace with the development and the growth of our town.”

According to the 2020 census, Riverhead Town’s population has increased by 7.15% since 2010, bringing the current tally to 35,902 residents.

Ms. Kent said the department’s size should keep pace with the town’s growth. She didn’t suggest a precise number of officers the department should aim to have, but said, “We would want to talk within the police department and have that discussion.”

The Democratic candidates said the department should have ample time to prepare for expected retirements. In January, the Town Board hired 10 new officers in response to what Police Chief David Hegermiller said was one of the highest number of retirements in recent memory. Most of those officers, however, could not begin active duty immediately as they waited for spots in a police academy. The Town Board last week accepted resignations for a lieutenant and a sergeant. Chief Hegermiller did not return calls seeking comment prior to deadline.

Mr. Micieli-Martinez, who lives downtown, said he’s “deeply concerned about the recent rash of violent crime around downtown the last month and a half,” citing media reports of recent incidents.

Tuesday’s press conference occurred about an hour after police arrested a Riverhead man for attempting to steal prescription drugs from a local drug store.