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Crime is not down in Riverhead, despite statements to the contrary by town officials during town board work sessions.

Criminal incidents are up in 2021 — up 14% over 2020 and up 10.3% over the pre-COVID year of 2019, according to monthly reports prepared by the Riverhead Police Department.

What’s down in Riverhead are arrests by town police in both 2021 and 2020. Arrests in 2021 are down 61% compared with 2019 (through Aug. 30), the reports released by the department to date show.

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Riverhead Police made 255 arrests in 2021 through Aug. 30 — an eight-month period during which there were 1,395 criminal incidents reported by police. In contrast, town police made 660 arrests in the same eight-month period of 2019, when there were 1,265 criminal incidents reported. In 2020, when COVID pandemic restrictions brought commerce and traffic to a halt, there were 1,220 criminal incidents reported to Riverhead police, who made 307 arrests.

The types of crimes reported to police were more or less the same across the board in ’19, ’20 and ’21, notwithstanding the pandemic.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller could not offer a clear explanation for the drop in arrests since 2019. See prior story: “Arrests post-COVID in Riverhead lag more than 86% behind same period last year,” Aug. 24, 2020.

Officers say criminal justice reform laws to blame for drop in arrests

But according to current and recently retired police officers in Riverhead and other police agencies, the Criminal Justice Reform legislation that went into effect Jan. 1, 2020 has suppressed arrest numbers.

The cashless bail portions of the reform package have drawn the most media attention, but other parts of the package have had significant impacts on policing, officers told RiverheadLOCAL, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The reforms included new requirements for police to obtain prosecutors’ approval of proposed criminal charges before they can be filed. That has lengthened the booking process for cops, keeping them off the street sometimes for hours, while they wait for approvals.

The reforms also included changes to state law governing how quickly prosecutors must turn over information about a criminal case to a defendant, known as pretrial discovery. Previously it could be kept from the defendant until shortly before trial. Now the information must be turned over within 15 days of arrest.

Police officers told RiverheadLOCAL the length of time it takes to book someone, combined with the bail reform laws that eliminated arraignments for many crimes, discourage arrests. When it takes four or five hours to book a defendant and the end result is writing a desk appearance ticket requiring the defendant to come to court at a later date, cops will think twice about arresting people on certain types of charges, the officers said.

The new discovery law has made some victims of crime reluctant to press charges, knowing that the arrested individual will soon be provided with the complainant’s name, address and other personal information, the officers said. The law also required disclosure of personal information about the arresting officer.

Hegermiller said in an Oct. 5 interview he did not think processing time has increased that much and he had not heard that Riverhead officers might be reluctant to make arrests for certain crimes because of the combined impacts of the provisions of the criminal justice reform measures.

“Maybe there’s a perception by the public that if I charge them nothing is going to happen anyway,” Hegermiller said.

The reform legislation took effect just before the pandemic hit, shutting down businesses, schools, government offices and dramatically impacting local commerce. Criminal incidents were down slightly in Riverhead in- the first half of 2020, but the number of arrests dropped precipitously last March and, while arrests have increased since then, they never returned to pre-pandemic — or pre-criminal justice reform — levels.

Story continues under chart.

“Things have not rebounded fully from COVID,” Hegermiller said in an interview Tuesday, after performing a review of department statistics. “Across the board arrests are down,” he said. “Some more than others. There’s probably a whole host of reasons,” he said.

Petit larceny arrests were down more than any other category, down 85% this year compared to 2019, Hegermiller said. Reported petit larcenies fell 9.5% this year through Aug. 30 (398 incidents) compared to 2019 (440 incidents.)

Police officers told RiverheadLOCAL store managers at Tanger and various retail stores on Route 58 have been reluctant to press charges against shoplifters because of the new discovery requirements.

DWI arrests are down 35%, the chief said. “I think people are still Leary of going out because of COVID,” he said.

While arrests were down in total, arrests for certain crimes — more serious ones, such as robbery — remained steady year over year, the chief said. “Our patrol and detective divisions working together are doing a great job,” Hegermiller said.

Town board members hail perceived drop in crime rate

In presenting his public safety reports at the town board work sessions once a month, the chief has been telling board members that criminal incidents have held steady compared to 2019. But board members, apparently focusing on arrest numbers, have interpreted the reports to mean crime is down and all five have consistently complimented the chief on a decline in the crime rate. He did not correct their mistaken impressions.

At his presentation at the June 10 work session, Hegermiller reviewed the monthly report provided to board members prior to each meeting. “Everything’s recovering from COVID so our numbers are way up, compared to 2020, last year, and semi up compared to 2019.” The chief did not specify which numbers he was referring to. Criminal incidents were up 22% year over year (’21 vs. ’20) at that point and arrest numbers were down 19%, according to the monthly reports he had released.

“Chief, it’s also important to note that during COVID and during a lockdown crime across many Suffolk counties exponentially increased, and in Riverhead, they exponentially went down,” Aguiar told Hegermiller. “And that’s something that you should be proud of, this town.”

Aguiar, in re-election campaign, claims Riverhead crime rate is down

Aguiar, Riverhead’s police commissioner and a former NYC police sergeant, has made a reduction in crime during her tenure a talking point in her re-election campaign. “Unlike other communities, crime rates have dropped,” Aguiar campaign advertisements and mail pieces state.

“While other areas saw a rise in crime, Riverhead crime rates have dropped substantially,” Aguiar claims in a video posted Tuesday on YouTube.

Reports of violent crimes (assault, robbery, rape, among others, as defined by the FBI) dropped in Riverhead in 2020 from 2019, but rose in 2021, surpassing both 2020 and 2019 (January-August.)

Asked Wednesday to comment on an analysis showing crime rates in Riverhead have not actually fallen, but arrests have dropped significantly, Aguiar said, “I didn’t know we had some type of analysis on it. I’d love to see it.”

Aguiar falsely claims crime increased in other towns last year

Crime increased in other Suffolk towns during COVID, Aguiar said Wednesday. “There was a tremendous amount of shootings,” she said. Those statements are not supported by FBI data published online.

Violent crimes reported by Riverhead, Southampton, Southold and East Hampton town police departments and the Suffolk County Police Department (covering the five western Suffolk towns) all dropped in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the data. There was no report by Shelter Island Town Police since 2017.

Property crimes reported to the FBI dropped year over year (’20 compared to ’19) in the Suffolk County Police District, Riverhead and East Hampton Towns, but rose in Southampton and Southold Towns.

Councilman Tim Hubbard, a retired Riverhead Police detective, said he believes the drop in arrests is a “direct fallout” from the criminal justice reform legislation.

“The length of time with an arrest, the more work included and being done for every arrest now, information forwarded immediately to the DA’s office and everything. And then oh, by the way, I’ll just give you an appearance ticket for that and see you later,” Hubbard said. “I mean, it’s kind of demeaning to be a cop to put all that work into something just to have bail reform, say, it’s no big deal, just let them go.”

He said the board should write a letter to state lawmakers to let them know the impacts of the new laws.

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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.