Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter today responded to the recent spate of robberies in downtown Riverhead with an announcement of an immediate increase in downtown police presence, stepped up code enforcement against illegal rental housing and an assessment of street lighting in the downtown area.
Citing the fatal hit-and-run crash that killed a pedestrian on East Main Street Dec. 28, the supervisor also announced the town will pursue measures to improve pedestrian safety downtown, including traffic calming devices and new crosswalk markings on Main Street.
The town currently has one officer on downtown foot patrol for 16 out of 24 hours, 7 days a week. There will now be two officers covering the same area 16/7, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said. There are in addition two police sector cars patrolling downtown, he said.
Walter said in a phone interview today the town would try to add a third officer on foot patrol “during peak times.”
In an interview earlier this week, Walter said he thinks the town’s police force should be increased to 100 officers; it now stands at 85. The difference is a matter of available funding, he said. The town has recently incentivized retirement for veteran officers, in the hope of eventually being able to hire more officers for the same total expenditure, since newer officers are paid lower salaries. The town board hired five new police officers last month after five veteran officers took the retirement package offered by the town.
But the supervisor said today he plans to ask the town board to authorize the transfer of $108,000 from the town’s general reserve fund to the police department to cover the cost of stepped-up patrols in the downtown district, including police overtime costs if necessary.
He said the police department was taking certain other additional steps that he would not disclose because doing so could jeopardize ongoing investigations.
“We’re going to do everything humanly possible,” Walter said. “We are not going to let downtown slide backwards.”
The supervisor insists downtown Riverhead is not unsafe.
“I want every resident and visitor to Riverhead to know that our downtown is statistically safer than many of our neighboring downtown districts,” Walter said in a news release issued this morning. “Crimes upon person are rare downtown and we just finished a very safe year in downtown Riverhead. I recognize that if you are a victim of crime, dry numbers are of little comfort, but I am happy to say that downtown we are managing to hold back the tide.”
Nevertheless, Walter said in an interview, perception is as important as reality, prompting his decision to make law enforcement officers more visible downtown.
Bryan DeLuca, executive director and cofounder of the L.I. Aquarium and Exhibition Center on East Main Street, which a young couple had been visiting when they were robbed at knifepoint Dec. 29, said he went to town hall yesterday to discuss with officials how the town might improve both downtown safety and visitors’ perceptions.
DeLuca said he suggested the town install “safety stations of the kind you see on college campuses now.” The “blue-light stations” offer emergency call boxes and feature flashing blue lights that can be activated by a crime victim or a person in distress. He said he believes the emergency stations could be funded by a grant. DeLuca said he asked to meet with the town board at an upcoming work session.
The aquarium official said his company could do a better job of communicating with police to let them know when peak visiting times are on the horizon.
“I realize we shouldn’t just assume the police are aware it’s winter break and we’ll be seeing traffic like we have during the summer,” DeLuca said. “I need to pick up the phone and call the police chief to touch base.”
Better lighting on downtown streets — something the supervisor said the town will be assessing — is another issue both DeLuca and Riverhead Business Improvement District president Ray Pickersgill said was an area of concern.
Ostrander Avenue, where the two aquarium visitors were robbed at knifepoint last weekend has only three street lights spanning a stretch of more than 600 feet from the corner of East Second Street north to Corwin Street, adjacent to two large, unlit gravel parking lots provided for aquarium visitors. The Long Island railroad tracks intersect Ostrander between Second and Corwin streets, and the tracks run alongside the parking lot on the west side of Ostrander — the former Riverhead Building Supply headquarters.
“The town has to look at whether it can improve street lighting there and in other areas downtown,” Pickersgill said.
The BID president also reiterated his call for surveillance cameras downtown, which would be both a deterrent and an investigative tool, he said.
Pickersgill said areas north of East Main Street have “a lot of drug activity,” something he said he personally witnesses “almost every day.” He said it’s common to see “men in contractors’ vans park on Second Street and walk up Maple or Union to do business with young guys standing on the sidewalk.”
“It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on there, in broad daylight,” Pickersgill said.
More foot patrols downtown, better lighting and cameras would go a long way to cure what’s ailing downtown, Pickersgill said. But what’s really needed is better code enforcement to address illegal rentals and especially illegal boarding houses in that area, he said.
“Why don’t they crack down on that? Where is code enforcement,” Pickersgill asked.
“We are definitely in the process of doing that,” Walter responded. “I want that entire housing enforcement program stepped up again. I’ve already instructed the town attorney to move on it.”
Pickersgill said he’s come to the conclusion that the only way downtown will be purged of slum lords, boarding houses and drug dealers is if the entire downtown district becomes an incorporated village.
“Then these things would be concentrated on all the time,” Pickersgill said.
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