Democratic candidates for town board seats at a Sept. 14 press conference in downtown Riverhead: Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who is running for town supervisor, center, and council candidates Evelyn Hobson Womack, left, and Juan Micieli-Martinez. Photo: Alek Lewis

Democratic candidates for Riverhead Town Board are supporting a reinvigoration to the town’s police department to fix what they said is an underfunded and understaffed part of the town crucial to its future.

During a press conference near the riverfront Tuesday afternoon, the candidates said public safety would be the Democratic majority’s top priority if elected in November. This is the second safety issue the Democrats, who call themselves the “hometown team,” have brought up about the downtown area. In July, they criticized the current administration for delay in implementing a security camera system purchased for Grangebel Park.

“Despite significant economic development and population growth in the last three decades and an increase in policing demands, the Riverhead Police Department has never expanded to meet the needs of our growing and changing town,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent, the Democratic candidate for town supervisor. “The fact of the matter is that our police department has been chronically and systematically understaffed for decades.”

Kent said town leadership has failed to scale the police department to meet the town’s population growth and that “future growth and development in Riverhead is wholly reliant on a properly funded, properly sized and properly supported Riverhead Police Department.” 

Kent read aloud the steps the candidates would take to change the police department. These steps include “improved and expanding hiring practices” to hire replacements for retiring officers; commissioning a study to “determine  proper force levels for a town of Riverhead’s size and multifaceted law enforcement challenges;” and initiating “policies and practices to ensure that the Riverhead Police Department more accurately reflects our diverse community and the Riverhead Police Department embraces the community policing model.”

Her administration would also tackle homelessness in Riverhead, Kent said. She also wants future development projects in Riverhead, like multistory apartment buildings, to contribute to the funding of police expansions so as to not overburden existing taxpayers.

The 2021 budget for the town’s police department is $16.3 million, which represents 32% of this year’s general fund appropriations. Kent said she would make public safety a priority in the town’s budget, but did not specify how much she would increase the department’s budget or how any increase would be funded. The increase in the number of officers would be based on the results of the study she hopes to commission, she said.

“As a police officer and a detective I had a front row seat to witness and have been personally impacted by understaffing,” said Evelyn Hobson-Womack, a recently retired detective of the department and town board candidate. She said the number of officers in the department, around 85, has remained mostly unchanged since she joined the department in 1993, and that candidates have received comments from police officers expressing “feelings of fatigue, burnout and low morale.”

“Riverhead Town leadership has failed to increase the size of our department,” she said. “Our adjoining police agency Southampton Town and Suffolk County Police Department’s Seventh Precinct, have at least 100 officers. Both agencies are approximately the same geographical size. The police department’s recruitment is not keeping up with the growth of the town.”

The town board hired seven new police officers in 2021, though none was hired in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the Suffolk County Police Academy. New officers are required to complete the academy before deployment. Over the course of 2020-2021, the Riverhead Police Department lost 13 veteran officers to retirement, including two whose last day is Friday.

The candidates stressed they were not criticizing the performance of the police officers or the department’s leadership, but would seek to remedy what they see as a resource problem. Kent said she looks forward to working with Police Chief David Hegermiller on the plan if elected.

They said that for the town to evolve, it has to get rid of the stigma related to crime and homelessness.

“The unfortunate truth of the matter is that Riverhead has long struggled with a negative perception in regards to crime and these high profile cases of violent crimes committed downtown, some as yet unresolved, do nothing to counter that narrative,” said council candidate Juan Micieli-Martinez, a downtown resident.

The candidates stood behind the old Swezey’s department store building on East Main Street, which is set to be demolished to make way for the new town square project. “If present residents fear going downtown, where if people do not feel safe coming to Riverhead, our town square project will prove to be a waste of precious resources and time that we can never recover,” Micieli-Martinez said.

Neither Hegermiller nor Supervisor Yvette Aguiar responded to phone calls or an emails seeking comment for this article.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]