The Town of Riverhead is experiencing an influx of residents because of the promise of a better life through flourishing job opportunities on the East End.
However, crime often goes unreported, and statistics are unreliable. Recognizing the problem, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter and Police Chief David Hegermiller reached out to the Guardian Angels to help with both patrols and to become a communication bridge between law enforcement and the Latino residents, who now are estimated to make up 14% to 30% of the town’s population.
Gangs have increased during the past few years, partly because of the nearby Yaphank Correction Facility. Several of gang leaders are incarcerated there but maintain influence and control in local community through loyal lieutenants. In some cases, there are reportedly now second-generation gang members. This has also meant an increase in crime, drug use and “protection schemes.”
With the growth of population and new residents to the attractive Riverhead area, there has been a swelling of enrollment in public schools. According to Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, this means that young people “have time on their hands.” He says, “the Guardian Angels have programs like anti-bullying and leadership training to help young people.” Part of the Guardian Angel programs is to create drug awareness and drug education (synthetic heroin is a growing problem).
In order to reduce the incidents of crime along the railroad tracks, and at the railroad station, Guardian Angels are now on patrol and supplementing the activities of Riverhead’s police department. There are 18 people that will be part of planned patrols at the railroad station and along the tracks. Each patrol will be deployed in groups of four. Similar patrols will be at the local laundry and cantina locations.
Law enforcement along with the community in general is now supporting the Guardian Angels. Town Supervisor Walter that anyone he talks with says “yes,” the Guardian Angel program is working and agrees that there are a reduced number of incidents compared to last year at this time. While it is not yet statistically proven, he feels that the community is being educated and that the Guardian Angels are making a difference.
Because many Guardian Angels are Latino, they are able to communicate between the residents and the Town and State Law Enforcement. Sliwa explains that because of the immigrant culture, there is no trust in the police in their homelands. This follows them here. His organization can help with that by promoting communication from within. He says that the Latino people know his organization and “trust within the Latino community is a big factor in their success.”
Walter says that everyone he talks to says that, yes, the presence of the Guardian Angels is improving things. He says that it is important to support and protect the Latino residents.
As part of Guardian Angel’s fundraising efforts, John and Margo Catsimatidis, United Refining in Riverhead, contributed $10,000 after listening to Curtis Sliwa and others present the programs and said they wanted to support the solutions that Guardian Angels are bringing to tough community issues in Riverhead. As a successful businessman, John Catsimatidis recently addressed a Riverhead Town Hall stating that he is interested in creating jobs and improving Riverhead through investment.
So who are the Guardian Angels? In 1979, Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels to help New Yorkers and law enforcement successfully fight a crime wave in New Yor City. At first people were uncertain about the group, but quickly New Yorkers felt safer and appreciated seeing their bright red berets and red jackets on many corners where crime was high and in the subways. The Guardian Angels were fearless patrollers of high-crime areas.
Today, the Guardian Angels is an international organization of volunteers. It operates chapters in 18 countries and 130 cities around the world. The organization has developed innovative leadership programs for communities as well as ways to protect vulnerable citizens through patrols and communication that help law enforcement. An important focus is youth and young adult programs that foster self-confidence and help kids with self esteem and self defense. Sliwa is recognized for his anti-crime activism and is an outspoken media personality with a top rated radio talk show in NYC.
Harold Takooshian, PhD, President, Manhattan Psychological Association, Fordham University, says, “Since 1979, the Alliance of Guardian Angels has developed into the model of a community self-help group at its best: volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to identify and then overcome problems in the community. Even with the sometimes serious problem of street crime, police are often overwhelmed, but Angels have made the crucial difference between a fearful versus a safe community in over 100 cities around the world.”
Solutions can be identified that help to break cycles of gang crime. Support systems like Guardian Angels work, and can make Riverhead the kind of high-quality-of-life place to live and work that all of its residents and leaders want.
For more information about the Guardian Angels, visit guardianangels.org. For donation and volunteering, call 718-649-2607.