The Guardian Angels will have a presence in Riverhead, Supervisor Sean Walter told RiverheadLOCAL yesterday.
The supervisor Police Chief David Hegermiller and Deputy Supervisor Jill Lewis met with Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa Tuesday night to discuss how the organization might help Riverhead Police combat gang activity here and protect the Latino community from “thugs,” Walter said in a phone interview.
The evening meeting took place in Walter’s law office in Wading River, where all three Riverhead officials live. The meeting was originally scheduled to take place in the Guardian Angels’ Manhattan office last Wednesday, but Sliwa had to postpone it when the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case was announced.
“It was a very interesting meeting,” the supervisor said. “Off-air Curtis and on-air Curtis are two different people,” he said, referring to Sliwa’s television and radio gigs on Fox and WABC radio. “I was pleasantly surprised.”
Sliwa said yesterday Tuesday night’s meeting was “open, very respectful and free-wheeling,” a “give-and-take” productive discussion.
Walter agreed and believes a working alliance witht the Guardian Angels will help Riverhead in a crucial way: communication with parts of the Hispanic community he says he hasn’t been able to reach; he hopes the Guardian Angels will provide a “bridge” for better communication. Sliwa “brings to the table a way to get us access to information in a big way,” Walter said.
“The single biggest issue for me as supervisor, from my perspective, is protecting the Hispanic population. We can’t continue to have the Hispanic population being vulnerable to either thugs or gangs,” Walter said.
The supervisor worries that Latino men, who have been victims in a series of beatings and robberies in downtown Riverhead, will turn to gangs for protection.
“Because of the number of Guardian Angels who are bilingual, we could be a conduit for them with the immigrant community,” Sliwa agreed.
Walter, who as supervisor also serves as Riverhead police commissioner, said he wants the Guardian Angels to have a base in Riverhead and conduct patrols here.
“It’s community watch on steroids,” Walter said of the group.
Walter said Sliwa wants to solidify what he’s doing in Greenport before starting training in Riverhead.
The Guardian Angels are currently working to establish a presence and patrols on the North Fork — where officials have resisted their efforts.
“I think that our department members and our partners in Suffolk County are in a better position to give a factual account of the gang activity in Southold Town than Guardian Angels members. And no, I will not be inviting the Guardian Angels to patrol Southold,” Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley told SoutholdLOCAL.
The group is pressing ahead with establishing patrols in Greenport anyway. They’ve successfully recruited and trained local residents to join the Guardian Angels.
“It’s a natural evolution from Greenport to Riverhead,” Walter said. “My hope is we can carry that over to Riverhead.”
The supervisor said he’s enlisting the help of Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate with recruiting people interested in joining the Guardian Angels in Riverhead.
Sliwa said anyone recruited from Riverhead would join the group for training in Greenport, where the organization has been recruiting and training local residents for patrols. “If and when they graduate as full-fledged Guardian Angels they, if they chose, could start organizing a Guardian Angel patrol for Riverhead,” Sliwa said.
He said he was struck by Riverhead officials’ reaching out to him. “We haven’t done any outreach in Riverhead, nor have we visited their town. Unlike their peers in surrounding areas, they are not in denial about their town’s problems with MS-13 or 18th Street [gangs]. They should be commended for reaching out to pre-emptively engage us about our tactics and procedures, especially as to how they might be implemented in Riverhead,” Sliwa said.
Sliwa said he assured Riverhead officials that the Guardian Angels seek “a cooperative working relationship in which we were subordinate to the police.”
“They’ve matured as an organization from what they were in the 80s,” Walter said. “They’re not combative with police. Their whole purpose is to work with the police.”
“What a refreshing departure from the intransigence of the mayor of Greenport, David Nyce, towards the Guardian Angels,” Sliwa said. “Greenport benefitted from the Guardian Angel patrols to combat open drug-dealing in and around Third Street Park from 2005 to 2007. By everyone’s account, we did the job without exacerbating the problem. We had good cooperation from the line officers of the Southhold Police Department. We converted many initial naysayers into supporters,” he said.
“Some elected officials have their heads in the sand,” Walter said. “I’m going to chastise them at next East End Supervisors and Mayors Association meeting.”
“You may not like Sliwa’s particular brand of information gathering, but too bad,” Walter said.
The Riverhead supervisor said gang activity is a regional problem that needs a regional approach.
“I learned something [from Sliwa] that I didn’t know and I was shocked,” Walter said. “MS-13 and 18th Street gang members are working people. They work very hard every day at ordinary jobs. And even if they live in Riverhead, guess where they’re working? Guess whose yards and laws they’re doing? They’re working in the Hamptons and on the North Fork,” Walter said.
“This is everybody’s problem and it’s time for everyone to wake up and smell the coffee.”
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