Members of the Guardian Angels anti-crime organization began patrolling Riverhead on Wednesday, part of an effort by town officials to open communication between police and the Latino community.
Benjamin Garcia, a Guardian Angels patrol supervisor from Manhattan, and Barbara Flores, a member from the Bronx, spent the afternoon walking neighborhoods near Riverhead's Long Island Rail Road station, distributing fliers and trying to recruit volunteers.
The Brooklyn-based Guardian Angels, known by their distinctive red berets and jackets, started in the Bronx in 1979 and now lead neighborhood-watch-style patrols in 130 cities worldwide. On Long Island, they have a presence in Greenport and Huntington Station.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter has met with Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa three times since December to organize patrols in the town, after police officials estimated more than a dozen Latino immigrants were victims of violent robberies in Riverhead in 2013 and 2014.
Thefts targeting immigrants abated earlier this year but resumed this week, when two Latino men were assaulted and robbed near the LIRR station early Sunday morning, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said.
Walter said he hoped the Guardian Angels could recruit members from the Latino community and encourage immigrants to go to police instead of gangs for protection. "I see it as a great relationship-building tool," he said.
Garcia and Flores stopped to talk to everyone they passed: groups of teenagers, elderly people walking dogs, deli workers. "Welcome to Riverhead, guys," a construction worker called from the top of a ladder. "Thanks for coming."
Lakisha Jackson, 35, of Calverton, took a flier from Garcia as she stood at the LIRR station. "I think it's good, keeps the streets safe," she said. "There's always gang violence, robberies."
The Guardian Angels proposal has stirred controversy in recent weeks. Main Street merchants feared the patrols could hurt the image of downtown Riverhead, the site of economic revitalization efforts for years, said Ray Pickersgill, president of the Riverhead Business Improvement District.
"We said, 'Listen, we spent the last eight years changing the perception of downtown Riverhead,' " Pickersgill said.
Walter and Sliwa said they assured merchants the patrols would focus on the area around the LIRR station, not Main Street. They also met with PBA officials last Thursday to assure them the Guardian Angels were there to help police gather information, not encroach on their territory.
The Latino population in Riverhead grew from 6 percent to 14 percent of the town's overall population between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"I think we do have a little bit of a language barrier, or maybe even a bit of a social barrier between Hispanics and us" because some fear police, Hegermiller said.
An October shooting in Southold raised concerns about gang activity on the East End and led the Guardian Angels to revive a chapter in Greenport. It now has 13 volunteers who patrol weekly, Sliwa said.
Garcia said he would return to Riverhead weekly to build up a cadre of volunteers.
"The more eyes and ears you have out there, the better it is," he said.