Officials confront the ‘perception’ of crime in Riverhead at Chamber panel

More cops. New downtown foot patrols. Surveillance cameras, license plate readers and body cams. Code updates and close ties with prosecutors and local task forces.

During a Riverhead Chamber of Commerce panel discussion on public safety Tuesday, lawmakers and law enforcement officials at the local, county and state level discussed the challenges facing and the progress being made in policing East End communities like Riverhead.

“Riverhead, quite honestly, has had a bad rap for a lot of years on a perception of crime — and a perception of crime and the reality of crime are two very different things,” said Riverhead Supervisor Tim Hubbard, a retired Riverhead police detective.

Mr. Hubbard said only a tiny percentage of the local population is responsible for most of the crime in Riverhead, but the damage those criminals do impacts the entire town.

“Yes, we have crime — every town does, and no crime is good,” the supervisor said. “But some crime is worse than others. We have the better kind of crime, if you will, because a lot of our crime is inflicted between people that know each other.

“If you go into a community and you’re afraid to walk the street, because some random criminal is going to come up to you — that’s bad crime,” he continued. “We don’t have bad crime. Our crime is either gang-related, or they know each other, or it’s a relative … that type of stuff. So our streets are very safe, despite what you might think. That’s a perception we have to get over.”

Mr. Hubbard said the Riverhead Police Department has grown from 85 to 100 officers in the past decade, and that the department now stations two officers on foot patrol in the downtown business district 16 hours a day, in part to deal with quality-of-life crimes.

“We’re no longer sitting by and watching or stepping over people in the park,” the supervisor said. “If they’re lying on the ground because they’re intoxicated or they don’t have a place to go, we’ll help them get a place to go if they’re homeless.”

He said police were doing a “great job cleaning it up down there.”

In addition to Mr. Hubbard, the panel included Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller, Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio, Suffolk County chief assistant district attorney Allen Bode, Suffolk County undersheriff Steven Kuehhas and deputy undersheriff John Becker and a representative of county Legislator Catherine Stark.

Chief Hegermiller said the majority of crime in Riverhead does not occur downtown.

“I think more of the problem down on Main Street is the quality-of-life issues that we face, and that’s homeless people, people sleeping on benches, people urinating in public — all that which we addressed last year in our town code “zero tolerance zone” downtown. So we’re able to write more town summonses and try to get these people out of there. I think we’re having some success.”

The chief said a multi-year effort to put more surveillance cameras in the downtown business district continues, and that a new countywide records management system has fostered greater communication — and more effective policing — between police in Riverhead and other municipalities.

Last year, Riverhead police were awarded a $1.4 million state grant to fund bodycams for the department’s officers and the computer systems that support the processing and storage of the footage.

Mr. Hegermiller also hailed a countywide program that has placed license plate reader cameras throughout Suffolk.

“I can’t tell you how many crimes we’ve solved with those cameras,” he said.

Mr. Bode talked about the challenges of fighting low-level crime in the wake of statewide bail reform measures passed in 2019, which severely restricted the use of cash bail and jail for misdemeanor or low-level offenses.

Like all the law enforcement officials on the panel, Mr. Bode said the reform measures have handcuffed the people tasked with combating crime, so authorities are using new strategies to deal with “serial misdemeanant[s].”

He described a case in Brentwood where an individual was “repeatedly harassing customers” at a local business.

“Sadly, under bail reform, police can arrest someone, but essentially they’re giving them … an appearance ticket. They can’t be held in jail,” Mr. Bode said, adding “So what we try to do is prioritize those cases … assign all those cases to one [county prosecutor] … If we can’t hold them in jail, we get those cases ready, push them forward, and we send them to jail or prison.”

Mr. Bode said the reform measures have also made combating narcotics trafficking more challenging.

“Right now, if you have a coffee cup full of fentanyl — that’s how much you have to have before I can even ask for bail — but the amount of fentanyl that can kill you is the weight of a mosquito. So it’s ridiculous that we can’t ask that drug dealers go into jail when we catch them selling. We have to wait for someone to die, and that’s wrong.”

He said the current rate of fentanyl overdose deaths in Suffolk County is 12 to 13 times the county’s murder rate.

Toward the end of the panel discussion, Mr. Hubbard announced a new campaign to highlight the work of Riverhead’s town government.

“We accomplish a lot of things — a lot of things don’t make it to the paper. A lot of things go on behind the scenes that you’ll never hear about, but they’re very necessary … and [we] appreciate that … We are about to embark on a positive campaign for the town,” he said.

“We feel right now that we get a lot of negative press, and that gets the headlines, and all the good stuff just kind of seems to go by the wayside. So my office and my staff [are] starting up a video program. We’re going to be putting something called ‘Riverhead in Action’ together. We’re going to go around to the different departments that the town has.

“We have about 360 employees, and we have 26 different departments and sub-departments. So we’re going to highlight what everybody does for the town. You pay your water bill. Do you know what the workers at the water department do every day? Most people have no idea.”