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Guardian Angels invited to patrol Riverhead amid growing gang concerns

Benjamin Garcia, New York City patrol director for

Benjamin Garcia, New York City patrol director for the Guardian Angels, puts up recruiting flyers along Depot Road in Huntington Station on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 30, 2014. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Riverhead officials have invited the Guardian Angels anti-crime organization to set up patrols in the town next year and help improve communication between police and Latino immigrants.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he, Police Chief David Hegermiller and Deputy Supervisor Jill Lewis met with Curtis Sliwa, founder of the New York City-based group, on Dec. 9, at Walter's Wading River law office.

The supervisor would like a program to start in January.

The meeting came after an October shooting in Southold that raised concerns about gang activity on the East End and led to the revival of a Guardian Angels chapter in Greenport.

Walter said protecting the Latino community is his "single biggest problem" in Riverhead; and Guardian Angels volunteers from among the town's immigrants could help police overcome language barriers and distrust.

"They have, I think, a very unique perspective and unique ability, working within the Hispanic community, to bring us information that we wouldn't necessarily be able to obtain," Walter said. "It was a very positive meeting."

Sliwa said in a Dec. 17 interview that he is receptive to working with Riverhead officials to train volunteers and set up patrols. "They're acknowledging what their problems are," he said. "They're not in any way trying to downplay it."

Newsday reported in August that Hispanic men were victims of more than a dozen violent robberies in downtown Riverhead in the past two years. Walter said the crimes prompted police to increase outreach to the immigrant community, but they had limited success.

"We've been in the churches, we've sent police door to door, but there's this barrier we haven't been able to break through," Walter said. "I think the Guardian Angels have a timeworn mechanism to do that."

The Guardian Angels, volunteers who don red jackets and military-style berets, conduct neighborhood watch-style patrols in 130 cities worldwide. Sliwa started the patrols in 1979, when he was night manager of a Bronx McDonald's.

This fall, the Guardian Angels revived a chapter in Greenport, 25 miles east of Riverhead, following an alleged gang shooting and machete attack that wounded two men on a farm-lined Southold street in mid-October. Police said the attack was linked to a dispute between MS-13 and 18th Street, two gangs with roots in Central America.

Greenport's Guardian Angels chapter has so far recruited 14 volunteers, all from the immigrant community, Sliwa said.

"It sort of flies in the face of what we were told initially," he said. " 'Well, they're in the shadows; they won't get involved. They fear retribution by gangbangers. You're wasting your time; it's a police matter.' So far, I think we've disproved those notions."

The Guardian Angels had patrolled Greenport from 2005 to 2007 to help shut down an "open-air drug-dealing problem" in a park there, he said. The organization has also patrolled Huntington and Huntington Station since about 2010.

Sliwa said he walked around downtown Riverhead on the night of Dec. 15 to get a sense of the community and speak to merchants. He said he was concerned the Suffolk County Jail, just outside downtown Riverhead, attracts gang-affiliated "couriers" who serve incarcerated gang members.

Southold officials said they were taking more of a hands-off approach to the Guardian Angels' activities in Greenport. Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said Friday the group was "certainly welcome. . . . This is a private, community-based organization. If they think they can galvanize the community into some kind of action plan, that's great."

alter said he believed "East End elected leaders need to have an open mind about the Guardian Angels and what they have to offer."

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