The Village of Hempstead’s police department has formed a three-officer anti-gang task force to help combat a growing problem with youth recruitment and violent crime.
Police officials recently “noticed a new trend in gang activity in the village, in that it’s become more expansive and more organized,” Hempstead Police Chief Michael McGowan said Tuesday at a news conference at Village Hall.
McGowan said violent crimes such as assaults and robberies have increased in the past year. Shootings in the village are up 45 percent so far this year, with 31 incidents compared with last year’s 17 for the same time period ending Tuesday, McGowan said.
In all of 2015, five people were killed by gunfire, McGowan said. So far this year, three people have been shot to death in the village.
Gang recruitment is being seen in youths as young as 13, McGowan said, with a “resurgence” of MS-13, the 18th Street gang and a new group, Latin Pride.
In addition to violent crime, resident complaints of gang activity, such as gang-related graffiti, have increased significantly in recent months, Village Mayor Wayne Hall Sr. said.
Earlier this year, the village spent $1.7 million on LED streetlights and 70 security cameras to put on village streets to increase safety. The cameras were synced with ShotSpotter gun recognition technology so the cameras can zoom in on suspects at the scene immediately after an incident to better identify suspects.
Three officers in the uniformed gang unit will include a sergeant who has “extensive street experience” who had been part of a gang unit earlier in his career, McGowan said, as well as an officer who is fluent in Spanish and another with technology skills.
The unit has been meeting with the FBI Gang Task Force, the gang units in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as the Nassau County district attorney’s office, McGowan said.
Hall billed the program “the first of its kind in Hempstead.”
“The new force is also a signal to the law breakers in the village that we will not tolerate any criminal activity,” Hall said. “We are committed to protecting all village residents.”
A public safety meeting is scheduled for Kennedy Park on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. to address residents’ concerns.
The village police department currently has 122 officers, McGowan said, a number he hopes to grow to 130 “as soon as we can.”
Hempstead’s is the largest and oldest village police force in the state and the third-largest on Long Island, behind Nassau and Suffolk’s police departments. Hempstead’s police cover 3.5 square miles, said McGowan, who estimates the department serves about 75,000 residents.
Village police detectives have been working with the FBI Gang Task Force, which has been active in the village for about 15 years, McGowan said. While the law enforcement agencies will continue to work in tandem, McGowan said, the new unit was formed “to be a little more proactive in our approach, rather than reactive.”
Village Trustee Don Ryan said the municipality has a “zero tolerance policy” for gangs.
“But no matter what we do, to be successful, we need the cooperation of our residents. They need to press charges if they are victims and they need to come forward if they are witnesses,” Ryan said. “With that type of effort and mindset we can eliminate the gang problem.”