Gangs have fueled a spike in violent robberies and assaults in Suffolk County this year, defying decreases in violent crime statewide and in Nassau County, according to state crime statistics and police.
The total number of armed robberies, shootings, stabbings and serious beatings has increased in Suffolk in 2009, while figures from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services also show guns are increasingly being used in those attacks.
Of the 505 robberies committed in the county between the first of the year and the end of July, 107 involved a firearm, a 27 percent increase over the same period last year. The total number of violent crimes in that period increased 9.5 percent, from 1,130 to 1,237.
"We are aware of the uptick and we're monitoring it very closely and responding to it," Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said. Gang activity "is a driving force, especially in the aggravated assaults."
Nassau police reported a 10 percent drop in violent crime this year, while law enforcement agencies statewide reported a slight decrease. But gun use in Nassau violent crime is slightly up. In Nassau, there were 150 firearm-related crimes through July 25; there were 306 in Suffolk.
In Suffolk, lower numbers of rapes and murders, which are relatively rare, were offset by higher incidences of robberies and assaults, which represent the vast majority of violent crime.
Focus on gang violence
The spike in violent crime in Suffolk has gotten the attention of law enforcement officials. District Attorney Thomas J. Spota cited the rise in a July letter to Suffolk Legis. William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) in response to a query from the legislator. A "significant increase" in gang violence as well as heroin trafficking were largely responsible, Spota wrote.
"Obviously the recent spate in gang related murders and attempted murders will more than likely drive the numbers up even further," Spota warned in the letter. He declined to comment for this article.
Dormer said the department's gun suppression task force and newly reorganized anti-gang team were responding to the rising violence. Brentwood, Central Islip, Wyandanch, North Amityville and Huntington have been the focus in recent months, police said. Suffolk police said they seized 2,499 guns in 2008 and 1,806 so far this year.
The county has seen a spate of bloody attacks linked to gangs this year. Members of the MS-13 gang were responsible for the killing of Edgar Villalobos, 28, who was hacked to death on a Brentwood street in July, officials charged, as well as the fatal stabbing of 16-year-old Zack Rosales of Westbury in August. An alleged gang member was also charged with shooting 13-year-old Wilson Batista Jr. on a Brentwood basketball court in June.
Police believe gangs were also behind an incident in Brentwood last month in which at least three masked people sprayed bullets at a birthday gathering, hitting four partygoers, as well as a drive-by shooting two days earlier that left two teens critically wounded.
Meanwhile, property crimes - burglary, larceny and vehicle theft - have dropped more than 6 percent this year in Nassau and 8 percent in Suffolk. Car thefts were among the largest decreases, following a national trend insurance experts credit largely to better policing and increased difficulty in stealing cars. In Suffolk, car theft has dropped more than 26 percent compared with 1999. In areas covered by the Nassau County Police Department, it has dropped 65 percent.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said multiyear trends remain positive and cautioned against reading too much into the rise.
"If you look at the long term . . . we're still 3.5 percent below in violent crime than where we were when we came into office," he said. All categories of violent crime combined fell more than 4 percent between 2004, when he took office, and 2008.
But Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Medford), chairman of the Suffolk Legislature's public safety committee, said Levy was misleading the public by focusing on decreasing property crimes, which rose 7.8 percent between 2007 and 2008 but have fallen this year.
"When [Levy] says crime is down in Suffolk, I believe he's right if you count jaywalking and simple little crimes and mass murder," Eddington said. "But that's not what people are concerned with. People are concerned with violent crime that's in their neighborhood."
The year's statewide numbers are reported by the primary police departments in 17 counties covering the state's major population areas other than New York City. They represent nearly 80 percent of reported crimes outside of the city, according to DCJS spokeswoman Janine Kava.
Crunching the numbers
Andrew Karmen, a criminologist and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, called the recent Long Island numbers "a mixed bag."
"One year doesn't make a trend, but the [national] trends from the late '90s have been favorable," he said. "Right now some of the biggest cities in the country are experiencing drops in crime despite the terrible economic conditions."
According to the FBI's annual crime report released this month, violent crime nationally dropped 1.9 percent between 2007 and 2008, while nonmetropolitan counties with populations of more than 25,000 showed a drop of 3.6 percent. Overall crime in New York City has dropped 11.4 percent so far this year, city police said.
Nassau police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey, who personally thanks each officer who removes an illegal gun from the street, said violent criminals are being discouraged in part by the nearly 300 arrests this year by the heroin task force.
"If you're out there making these public contacts, it has a deterrent effect," he said, but added he was troubled by an increase this year in home burglaries.
"We can't get a handle on it," he said. "I can't say it's attributable to the economy exclusively, and I can't say it's attributable to heroin users exclusively, although those things certainly play a role."
Nassau Executive Thomas Suozzi said he was pleased most county crime numbers were down despite the bad economy. He credited the department's flexibility and close attention to crime data. "We have relentless follow-up . . . as to where crime takes place, and when we see something happening we target the resources," he said.