Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa says Riverhead is “the epicenter of the street gang activity that plagues the area.”
In an interview this week about recent gang violence in Southold, Sliwa told SoutholdLOCAL, “All roads lead back to Riverhead, which has had a longer history of Latino gang activity and serves as a conduit for the gangs all throughout the East End.”
Gangs have spread out to the North Fork from Riverhead, Sliwa said, in much the same way gangs in years past used Coney Island as a hub before infiltrating surrounding communities. (See story.)
“He’s wrong,” Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said. “Riverhead is in no way the epicenter of gang activity.”
Hegermiller does not deny there is gang activity in Riverhead. Typically, gangs are “neighborhood driven — cliques more than anything,” the chief said. “It’s been like that for decades.”
An Oct. 14 shooting and machete attack in Southold grew out of a dispute between MS-13 and 18th Street gang members. Southold Police have charged five men — alleged MS-13 members — in connection with that attack, which sent two men — both 18th Street gang members, according to police — to the hospital.
Riverhead Police today announced they’ve brought a felony assault charge against one of the five Southold suspects in connection with an Oct. 10 shooting on Maple Avenue in downtown Riverhead. The shooting victim, a 19-year-old Hispanic male, told police he was attacked by two assailants. Asked if police were still seeking a second suspect, Hegermiller said today the matter is “still an active investigation.”
“The existence of MS-13 and 18th Street gang members here concerns me more than the stuff we normally see,” Hegermiller said. But while he’s concerned, he said, the incident doesn’t indicate that Latino gangs are prevalent in Riverhead.
“I think we’ve done a lot in Riverhead over the last 10 or 12 years. You can’t look anywhere else around and find the Council for Unity in the schools and a Council for Unity community coalition. You’ve got Council for Unity in the jail, too, where there’s also a program run by Timothy Hill to help people assimilate back into the community.
“We’ve got a gang awareness program in the middle school and host the East End gang awareness seminar here every year,” Hegermiller said. “We’ve had a lot of good success. Have we eliminated every gang and every gang issue? I don’t say we have — and I don’t think that will ever happen.”
Sliwa hopes to create a program in Greenport and Southold schools to help raise awareness and fight the gang problem. He plans to send Guardian Angel patrols into the area beginning this weekend and aims to train citizens to organize their own patrols, he said.
Sliwa could begin the same process of patrolling and organizing Guardian Angel activities to “root out the problem, suppress it and begin to grind it down,” he said.
“People and officials in Riverhead appear to be far more cognizant of their gang problems and more willing to acknowledge them publicly. I would hope that they would be cooperative of our efforts.”
Hegermiller said he’d welcome the Guardian Angels patrolling Riverhead streets. “They’d be extra eyes and ears for me.”
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he’s concerned about the potential for street gangs to “fill a vacuum” for the young Latino men who are “detached from their families.” They are “marginalized by the community,” Walter said. “They don’t have the support structure of family here.” Walter worries that they will turn to gangs for protection from the violence they’ve been victims of on downtown Riverhead streets over the past year.
“I need to protect them from crime and I need to protect them from gang members as well,” Walter said.
“What I need, if we were to work with the Guardian Angels on any level, is a more targeted influence” to help prevent gang affiliations before they happen,” Walter said.
Hegermiller and members of the Riverhead Police Department attended a meeting of East End police chiefs and officers today called by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota to discuss gang issues on the East End. It was a three-hour roundtable discussion, Hegermiller said. The meeting underscored the need for better communication between departments — particularly between the town and village departments on the East End and the county police force.
A special anti-gang task force might be created, as it was in 2005, Hegermiller said.
“The first task force in ‘05 was successful. It helped us focus and hone our skills on the way we handled it. We focused not just on gangs but on all activity that was out of the norm,” Hegermiller said.
“Most of our problems in Riverhead still revolve around narcotics,” the chief said.
Lisa Finn contributed reporting.
Photo caption: Guardian Angel founder Curtis Sliwa speaking in Greenport Nov. 11. (Photo: Lisa Finn)
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