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Riverhead supe says Southold officials have ‘heads in the sand’ over gangs, welcomes Guardian Angels; Russell fires back

Unlike in Southold, where the presence of the Guardian Angels has been met with a less than enthusiastic presence by elected officials, Riverhead is prepared to welcome the group to help fight gang activity with open arms, Supervisor Sean Walter told RiverheadLOCAL yesterday.

The supervisor, Police Chief David Hegermiller and Deputy Supervisor Jill Lewis met with Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa Tuesday night to discuss how the organization might help Riverhead Police combat gang activity here protect the Latino community from “thugs,” Walter said in a phone interview.

“What a refreshing departure from the intransigence of the mayor of Greenport, David Nyce, towards the Guardian Angels,” Sliwa said, of Walter’s warm reception. “Greenport benefitted from the Guardian Angel patrols to combat open drug-dealing in and around Third Street Park from 2005 to 2007. By everyone’s account, we did the job without exacerbating the problem. We had good cooperation from the line officers of the Southold Police Department. We converted many initial naysayers into supporters,” he said.

“Some elected officials have their heads in the sand,” Walter said. “I’m going to chastise them at next East End Supervisors and Mayors Association meeting.”

“You may not like Sliwa’s particular brand of information gathering, but too bad,” Walter said.

The Riverhead supervisor said gang activity is a regional problem that needs a regional approach.

“I learned something [from Sliwa] that I didn’t know and I was shocked,” Walter said. “MS-13 and 18th Street gang members are working people. They work very hard every day at ordinary jobs. And even if they live in Riverhead, guess where they’re working? Guess whose yards and laws they’re doing? They’re working in the Hamptons and on the North Fork,” Walter said. “This is everybody’s problem and it’s time for everyone to wake up and smell the coffee.”

When asked to respond to Walter’s statement, and again, how he felt about the Guardian Angels, Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said if the Guardian Angels “could galvanize some type of community response, then they should. However, any perspective I rely on will come from professionals in several law enforcement agencies. Each community should pursue what they think is best for their community. I refrain from commenting on other towns. Sean would be wise to do the same.”

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley, when asked to comment on Walter’s comments, said, “I am not sure who the Riverhead Supervisor is referring to. I’ll let him clarify his remarks.”

In past weeks Nyce has said he believes a community meeting held at St. Agnes to address a brutal MS-13 gang attack in Southold in October was “putting the cart before the horse”; he said he believed locals should have met first without any outside intervention. He did not return requests for comment when asked about Walter’s statements regarding North Fork elected officials and his support of a regional approach.

Also remaining mum on the issue Thursday was David Gamberg, superintendent of both the Greenport and Southold schools. Despite the fact that after the Southold shooting and machete attack, one student was led from Greenport schools in handcuffs, Gamberg has not responded to requests for comment after the Guardian Angels offered to bring in junior patrol members from Washington Heights for a presentation. Sliwa has said schools are ripe for gang recrutiment, with gangs looking to recruit new members in cafeterias and gyms as young as six years old.

Russell said that a gang information forum to be held tonight at 7 p.m at the town’s recreation center on Peconic Lane is open to the public. “Again, they (the Guardian Angels) are welcome, and there will be time for comment at the end of the presentation. They, or any organization, are welcome to attend.”

But, Russell said, “no member of the organization has contacted me to say whether they are coming or not.” He also said the Guardian Angels had not reached out. “I’m sure they are aware of the meeting and I have heard they have been active in the community. They just haven’t reached out to me or the chief,” he said.

Sliwa said on Thursday that “of course” he would reach out to Russell to set up a potential future meeting with him and Flatley.

Tuesday’s evening meeting took place in Walter’s law office in Wading River, where all three Riverhead officials live. The meeting was originally scheduled to take place in the Guardian Angels’ Manhattan office last Wednesday, but Sliwa had to postpone it when the grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case was announced.

“It was a very interesting meeting,” the supervisor said. “Off-air Curtis and on-air Curtis are two different people,” he said, referring to Sliwa’s television and radio gigs on Fox and WABC radio. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

Sliwa said yesterday Tuesday night’s meeting was “open, very respectful and free-wheeling,” a “give-and-take” productive discussion.

Walter agreed and believes a working alliance with the Guardian Angels will help Riverhead in a crucial way: communication with parts of the Hispanic community he says he hasn’t been able to reach; he hopes the Guardian Angels will provide a “bridge” for better communication. Sliwa “brings to the table a way to get us access to information in a big way,” Walter said.

“The single biggest issue for me as supervisor, from my perspective, is protecting the Hispanic population. We can’t continue to have the Hispanic population being vulnerable to either thugs or gangs,” Walter said.

The supervisor worries that Latino men, who have been victims in a series of beatings and robberies in downtown Riverhead, will turn to gangs for protection.

“Because of the number of Guardian Angels who are bilingual, we could be a conduit for them with the immigrant community,” Sliwa agreed.

Walter, who as supervisor also serves as Riverhead police commissioner, said he wants the Guardian Angels to have a base in Riverhead and conduct patrols here.

“It’s community watch on steroids,” Walter said of the group.

Walter said Sliwa wants to solidify what he’s doing in Greenport before starting training in Riverhead.

The Guardian Angels are currently working to establish a presence and patrols on the North Fork — where officials have resisted their efforts.

“I think that our department members and our partners in Suffolk County are in a better position to give a factual account of the gang activity in Southold Town than Guardian Angels members. And no, I will not be inviting the Guardian Angels to patrol Southold,” Flatley told SoutholdLOCAL.

The group is pressing ahead with establishing patrols in Greenport, anyway. They’ve successfully recruited and trained local residents to join the Guardian Angels.

“It’s a natural evolution from Greenport to Riverhead,” Walter said. “My hope is we can carry that over to Riverhead.”

The supervisor said he’s enlisting the help of Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Hispanic Apostolate with recruiting people interested in joining the Guardian Angels in Riverhead.

Sliwa said anyone recruited from Riverhead would join the group for training in Greenport, where the organization has been recruiting and training local residents for patrols. “If and when they graduate as full-fledged Guardian Angels they, if they chose, could start organizing a Guardian Angel patrol for Riverhead,” Sliwa said.

He said he was struck by Riverhead officials’ reaching out to him. “We haven’t done any outreach in Riverhead, nor have we visited their town. Unlike their peers in surrounding areas, they are not in denial about their town’s problems with MS-13 or 18th Street [gangs]. They should be commended for reaching out to pre-emptively engage us about our tactics and procedures, especially as to how they might be implemented in Riverhead,” Sliwa said.

Sliwa said he assured Riverhead officials that the Guardian Angels seek “a cooperative working relationship in which we were subordinate to the police.”

“They’ve matured as an organization from what they were in the 80s,” Walter said. “They’re not combative with police. Their whole purpose is to work with the police.”

Additional reporting by Lisa Finn

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.