Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller at work in the town supervisor's office on March 26. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Town’s police chief has spoken out against police brutality and the Minneapolis police officers responsible for the death of George Floyd on May 25.

In a letter to the community posted on the Riverhead Town website, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said the actions of the Minnesota cops, captured on video and witnessed by the world, “go against us as human beings as well as the policy, practice and training of our department.”

Hegermiller said he wants the community to know that every member of the Riverhead Police Department was upset by what they saw in the gruesome video.

The Minneapolis officers’ behavior is “incomprehensible,” said Hegermiller, a 38-year veteran of the Riverhead PD, where he has served as chief for 18 years.

“I have not and will not tolerate abuse, maltreatment or crimes against anyone,” Hegermiller wrote in the letter, dated June 5.

“The cornerstone of our mission statement is the value of human life and the protection of the dignity of all people,” he wrote.

“You take this job and you want to be Superman,” Hegermiller said in an interview today. “You become a cop because you want to help people, you want to protect them, you want to serve your community,” he said.

The distrust he’s heard voiced in recent days, especially by protesters at the march on Main Street May 31, took him aback, he said.

“When some protesters were shouting at Riverhead cops, ‘Stop trying to kill us,’” the chief said, “I tried to tell them, that’s not us, that’s not what we’re about. I felt I was unable to get that message across. You can’t have a conversation in that situation,” he said. “People were very passionate, very emotional.”

But still, he added, “You can’t believe someone would think that of you.”

The video depicting Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of the prone Floyd for nearly nine minutes, as two other officers held the man’s back and legs, while a fourth officer stood by, touched off a firestorm of criticism of police and police tactics and gave rise to days of protests across the country.

It was hard for anyone to watch, including cops, Hegermiller said. “It was just incomprehensible.”

The Riverhead Police Department has its policy on the use of physical force posted on the department’s page on the town website. It has been posted there for about a year, the chief said. It was adopted in November 2010, according to the document.

“Members of this department shall use only the force necessary to affect lawful objectives. Members shall use the least amount of force necessary to effect cooperation and control of a situation which requires police intervention, and then only when all other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or are not available,” the policy states.

Force used must be “objectively reasonable” under the circumstances, according to the policy. It must be the minimum force necessary for a given situation.

The policy also requires an officer who observes another officer use force that exceeds the permissible degree of force to promptly report it observations to a supervisor.

The policy was adopted after a Riverhead police officer was captured on videotape shoving, punching and kicking a handcuffed prisoner in the lobby of police headquarters in February 2007.

The officer involved in the incident, a 20-year veteran at the time, was suspended without pay for eight months.

During the trial of a federal lawsuit brought by the detainee, the officer, a white male, testified that the detainee, a black male, had kneed him in the groin and kicked him in the shin as he assisted another officer who was leading the man from a crowded courtroom. Three other Riverhead officers were present during the beating, according to the videotape.

The town settled the lawsuit, which sought $1 million in damages, for an undisclosed sum after the trial got underway.

When Riverhead police shot and injured a Jamesport man in a shootout at his home on May 27, it was the first time in “maybe 40 years” a Riverhead cop fired a gun at someone, Hegermiller said. The last time involved a sergeant who may or may not have actually fired at someone. “There’s a lot of stories out there. Some say he fired rounds into the air, others say he fired at a suspect and missed. There are not a lot of details,” he said.

Hegermiller said he does not oppose legislation passed in the State Assembly and Senate Monday that bans chokeholds. The bill, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he will sign into law, was named for Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died in police custody in 2014 after NYPD officers held him in a chokehold.

Hegermiller said in his nearly two decades as chief, no report of the use of a chokehold has ever come across his desk.

“I can’t recall someone using it,” Hegermiller said.

In his letter posted on the town website, Hegermiller wrote that he believes in the people of Riverhead and is proud to serve as Chief of Police.

“I am not naive to history,” he wrote, “but over my long career, I have seen change.

“It concerns me greatly that law-abiding people would or could actually fear us. It goes against every reason I became a police officer. I will do everything in my power and will work with anyone to dispel that fear and lack of trust,” he wrote.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.