Then and now: Thomas, left, and David Lessard outside Riverhead Police headquarters this week. Inset: the brothers on the day Thomas, left, graduated from the Suffolk County Police Academy. Photo: Denise Civiletti (Inset courtesy David Lessard)

Riverhead’s identical twin police officers are retiring this week after more than three decades of police work together.

Lt. David Lessard and Sgt. Thomas Lessard will walk out of Riverhead Police Department Headquarters for the last time as sworn officers Friday afternoon.

The brothers chose to retire on the same day, though Dave started on the job in January 1988, a year before Tom.

“My brother actually signed me up for the test,” the lieutenant recalled, chuckling. “It’s sort of ironic.”

The Lessard twins are something of a novelty in law enforcement. While there are other sets of twins who work in the field, Dave said they have never heard of twins working for the same police department.

It’s led to some humorous moments they admit, including people under arrest who are being processed and see Tom, who wears a blue uniform, and seconds later see Dave, who as a lieutenant wears a white uniform shirt. “And they are really confused. They’ve actually asked how I changed a shirt that quick,” Dave said.

It’s also led to some minor confusion with things like messages being routed to the wrong voicemail or subpoenas being served on the wrong office, he said.

At age 58, they’re used to it. As identical twins, they have looked very much alike their whole lives, after all. Their voices are nearly indistinguishable, too. Dave was born 20 minutes before Tom. In fact, Tom was a complete surprise. “There were no sonograms back in 1963,” Dave said. The doctor didn’t detect a second baby in their mother’s womb.

Before they became police officers, the Lessard brothers worked in construction, which was a family business, they said.

“We’re pretty much Riverhead products, born and raised in Riverhead, went through the Riverhead school system, then graduated from Suffolk Community College and worked locally and were fortunate enough to become to join the police department when we were only in our early 20s,” Dave said.

They have always had a respect for law enforcement, he said. Bob Kukla, a state trooper, was like an uncle to them; they looked up to him and enjoyed his stories about being in law enforcement.

The job has more than lived up to their expectations, the Lessard brothers agreed. It’s been exciting and interesting work, they both said.

“It’s a roller coaster ride,” Dave said. “There’s so many ups and downs in it. It’s the not knowing. Just when you think, it’s a quiet night, you know, it’s like, everything breaks loose and a lot of different things come up,” he said. “In our career, we saw a lot of different things.”

“When I first came on — it was kind of an eye-opener — it was right in the middle of the Yusef Rahman sniper incidents,” Dave said, referring to the case of the “Riverhead sniper,” which had the local community paralyzed with fear during the holiday season of 1988.

“It was a four-day shooting spree that left one individual dead and three injured, and they shot at a Southampton Town Police Car with Larry Doscinski in it. He was waiting behind Riverhead Police Department with his rifle at one point. It was kind of a tense time,” Dave said.

“There were a lot of big cases we were fortunate to be involved with,” he continued. “Back in 1995 Operation SOS, a joint narcotics investigation between Riverhead Police Department, Southampton and New York State Police resulted in over 70 arrests. That was good to be a part of. And we were employed during the wildfires and the Flight 800 tragedy.”

Dave was one of six Riverhead officers sent into Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks. It was a moving experience he said he’ll never forget. “It was surreal when you got in there,” he said. Lower Manhattan “looked like a nuclear winter,” he said. He recalls feeling “a mixture of emotions — fear, sadness, anger. It was basically just a disbelief that an act of terrorism could occur on American soil.” But, he said, “in the midst of all that suffering, you also saw the hope that all the New York City people had, their generosity, their support. They were coming out, cheering on the first responders.”

The lesson for law enforcement is “to never be complacent.”

Things are always changing, Dave said. Changes in technology have been the biggest changes over the course of their career, he said.

“All the data collection, information systems and everything, DNA, — everything’s on video now, which, for the most part, it’s all been good,” Dave said.

“When the technology got better, it took away from the personal nature of police work,” Tom said. “What I mean by that is, as far as the cop actually getting more out and about and talking to people, interviewing people and, you know, just knowing who’s who and making personal connections,” Tom said.

As much as they’ve loved their work, the job comes with many challenges and difficult times, the Lessard brothers agreed.

“It’s always hard to see people when coping with tragedies,” Dave said. “Maybe a young child drowns or there’s a car accident. Those have always been some of the more difficult things,” he said.

“I think the important thing for police officers to remember is that you have to have a large amount of empathy and sympathy,” Dave said. “When you make arrests — when people are being arrested, things happen because bad things are happening in their lives. So you really have to put yourself in their shoes. That’s important for police to see that,” Dave said.

Making an arrest is “the unenjoyable part” of police work, Dave said. “Police don’t want to go out there and arrest people. That’s not what you’re looking forward to doing. We want to go out there and help people,” he said. “We took the job to serve the public and that’s been the good side of it. But the negative side of it is, you deal with people when they’re at their worst. You just have to look at it that you’re there to help them,” Dave said.

“There’s so many situations that the cops get involved with that, it’s gonna be a no-win situation,” Tom added. “They’re not going to be satisfied or completely happy with what the cop has to do. So, the cop knows that and that’s not a good feeling for the cop either. But if, even in the arrest procedure, if he’s respectful to the person, that person many times, almost all the time, even while they’re under arrest, will understand that you’re doing your job and tell you they appreciate that you treat them like a human being,” Tom said.

Another difficulty, they both agreed, has been watching the recent protests and anger toward police on the national scene.

“Generally speaking, in the Town of Riverhead, I have felt nothing but support and respect from the community,” Dave said. “People will see you and they’ll thank you for what you’re doing. They tell you they appreciate you,” he said. “You hear it all the time.” He believes that in Riverhead there’s always been a mutual respect between the police department and the public.

Riverhead has also undergone many changes since the Lessards joined the police force. The population has grown substantially. There were 23,000 residents in Riverhead Town as of the 1980 federal census. That number swelled to nearly 36,000 as of the 2020 census.

“Our calls for service have probably doubled since I first started, especially with all the retail expansion on 58,” Dave said. “So, you know, you see what you can do with what you have. It would be nice if we had more police officers,” he said. “It really comes down to an expense thing, and that’s understood, but you don’t get to do as many proactive things when you don’t have as many people available. It becomes more reactive.”

“Some of the recent legislation has made the logistics of doing police work, as far as the paperwork of it — you know, discovery, and bail reform and things like that — it’s made it more labor-intensive on the cops, made it quite a bit tougher on them,” Tom said. The net result is that arrests take longer to process and the arresting officer is taken off the street for a longer period of time when they make an arrest, Tom said.

“That makes it more difficult to be proactive,” Dave added.

The brothers look back on their service in the police department dive rescue unit — on which they’ve served about 30 years — as a highlight of their careers.

“We were involved with probably 200-plus marine incidents or water rescues,” Tom said. “And I think we probably had — we looked at it one time — about 80 people that we saved that might have perished,” he said. “So, every one of those was a highlight, you know, bringing somebody back who was out in the middle of the Long Island Sound. And it happened quite a few times,” Tom said.

“Finding them at nighttime, bringing them back to their family members standing on the beach, where they’re in tears, starting to lose hope and we rescue them and hand them back to their family. That’s probably, I would say, one of the top — there’s no better feeling than that,” Tom said.

What comes next for the Lessard brothers? At 58, they say they aren’t ready to leave the workforce. Downtime is just not in their DNA.

During their time on the force, they’ve both worked construction on the side. “We’ve always worked two jobs. That’s how we were brought up,” Dave said. “So we’ll probably take a breath, maybe do some fishing, a little golf, but I’m sure we’ll be working at something new.”

As they plan their retirement, they said they feel good about the young cops and the up-and-coming department supervisors.

“I always say, it’s probably one of the best groups I’ve seen in a long time, as far as intelligent, respectful and professional,” Tom said. “The newer cops are a good group. So leaving, I look back at that, and I’m like, that’s one of the better-looking groups coming up.”

It’s a small department, and there’s not a lot of opportunity for moving up, Dave said. “That’s the downside, but the upside is it has always been a family-oriented police department, very short response times, and, you know, you really get your service out of the men and women that are there,” Dave said. “And like Tom said, it’s a great group of young cops, a great group of supervisors coming up. We have a lot of faith that the Town of Riverhead is definitely in good hands.”

Nevertheless, leaving isn’t going to be easy. Both said they will miss the people they work with, “the laughs and the stories, just the camaraderie and the teamwork,” as Dave put it, “basically just the men and women you work with every day.” And that’s not just the police officers, Tom adds. “That’s everybody — the dispatchers, the secretaries, the central records staff, the technology civilians, the guys down at the town garage who make sure the vehicles are safe for everybody, the janitorial staff. Everybody’s family.”

“Most importantly we thank all the residents of the great Town of Riverhead for giving us the opportunity to serve them,” Dave said.

“And to all the police officers — current, retired, associated agencies and those no longer with us — it’s been an honor.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.