Fearful E. Patchogue homeowner's plea for help

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Catherine Donnelly looks out of her home's window

Catherine Donnelly looks out of her home's window in East Patchogue. (Oct. 9, 2010) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Rick Brand Portrait of Newsday reporter Rick Brand taken on

Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.

Catherine Donnelly thought she had found her dream home when she moved from Babylon into a "Habitat for Humanity" house in East Patchogue in 2008.

But the single mother of three said her life has begun "to resemble a nightmare" because of the crime engulfing her North Bellport-East Patchogue neighborhood.

"My children and I have become prisoners in our own home," she said in riveting testimony before a Suffolk County Legislature committee Thursday. "I cannot go outside my house once it's dark. . . . If we run out of milk . . . we do without until the next day." When she turned down her son's recent request to make s'mores in the backyard, Donnelly said, "I wish you could have seen the disappointment . . . in his eyes as he asked me why we had moved here."

In a vivid litany, Donnelly listed details of more than 20 robberies, break-ins, shootings and acts of physical violence that she said occurred to homeowners on her block alone. And in an emotional plea, Donnelly asked for more police, saying the two officers assigned to the community, plus two extra recently added temporarily, are not enough.

"Either number is . . . appallingly out of proportion to the amount of crime that occurs in this small area," she said.

County police Commissioner Richard Dormer said Friday that police are carefully reviewing Donnelly's complaints.

Donnelly also begged the county to buy the ShotSpotter system, which instantly locates gunfire for police.

She spoke out unannounced at a regular meeting of the public safety committee, as any member of the public can do, simply by signing a card beforehand.

Her testimony was so compelling, Republican Legis. Tom Muratore of Ronkonkoma apologized for county government inaction. Another, Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), called what Donnelly has faced "reprehensible," adding, "No place in this county should be given up as a lost zone."

The testimony underscores the concerns of lawmakers who have long pressed for replenishing police ranks shrunk by retirements. They have clashed with County Executive Steve Levy, who until this year's proposed budget has maintained the county can make do with less through redeployments. Increased gun, drug and gang crime has caused Levy to propose 150 replacement cops in his 2011 budget.

Donnelly's appearance came a day after Legis. Kate Browning (WFP-Shirley) had invited ShotSpotter officials to North Bellport to do a preliminary survey of where censors might be placed. Browning had asked precinct officials to participate as police did in Huntington Station last month after highly publicized shootings there. Top police officials declined the request, however, saying any decision on ShotSpotter would be made at headquarters.

Dormer, in an interview later, said, "I understand people being frustrated by any kind of crime in their neighborhood, but I want to reassure them the police department is up there in force."

He maintained that major crime is down 19 percent in the past year and vowed the increase in staffing is not temporary.

However, Donnelly, a local civic leader, was dubious at the hearing about the police response, saying residents have "not received one straight answer" from them and that she fears real crime numbers are being lowballed. When she's called in gunshots in the past, Donnelly said, she's been grilled about whether she really heard fireworks.

Dormer later said he has an "open mind" about ShotSpotter, though he conceded he had questioned the cost and effectiveness of the technology. He said aides are talking with Nassau police, who already use the system, about their experience.

But Browning is concerned Dormer won't judge the system fairly because its accuracy might show crime is much higher.

Donnelly, meanwhile, believes the new technology could save her life if she is ever shot. "My scariest moment is when I'm strapping my baby into a car seat because I am bent over and cannot see," she told the committee.

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