With at least one serial Peeping Tom stalking around Greenport’s streets — reportedly staring into bedroom windows and opening window screens — nearly two dozen local residents met with the local police chief Tuesday night to express their concerns.
During the meeting in the basement at Floyd Memorial Library, many people said they were the voyeurs’ victims and were scared to be alone at night. They are also nervous about where he might strike next and worried that the incidents might escalate into sexual assaults.
The victims and neighbors also said they are fed up the lack of action on the part of local authorities to stop the unnerving sprees.
“I think about it every night,” said one victim, who asked not to be identified because she fears for her safety.
“The severity of the issue is not being addressed,” added Jamie Martilotta, a Greenporter who helped organize the meeting.
“They’re more comfortable than we are,” said another Greenport resident, “and it needs to stop.”
The roughly hour-long meeting between the concerned citizens and Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley was largely cordial, but at times the residents’ frustrations with the voyeur problem boiled over.
Greenport’s Peeping Tom problem dates back more than a decade, Chief Flatley said, and police have a suspect in mind who was responsible for numerous incidents in the past decade. In 2014, some victims of a Peeping Tom identified as Greenport’s James Lawrence expressed frustration that the man was arrested for trespassing but released from jail time and time again after short sentences.
Mr. Lawrence has a history of convictions that goes back nearly two decades, including burglaries and other arrests for creeping onto private properties and exposing himself to women and children. In 2014, he pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing and was sentenced to 90 days in jail, after which he was released.
Under current sentencing guidelines, voyeurism counts as trespassing, a non-criminal violation, Chief Flatley explained. Because of that, a repeat offender can’t face the same jail time as someone convicted of more serious serial offenses.
Chief Flatley said police have documented four incidents in recent months of a voyeur looking in people’s windows.
The chief also said police were especially concerned with a prowler incident earlier this month, in which a sleeping woman was awoken by the sound of her window screen being moved and spotted someone reaching in and pulling away her curtains.
Investigators have been unable to link anyone to the incidents because witnesses haven’t given enough of a detailed description, Chief Flatley said.
“We’re having an identification problem,” he said, noting the victim earlier this month was only able to describe the prowler as a heavy-set black man wearing all black. When victims were shown a lineup of potential suspects — including the individual police suspect — the witnesses weren’t able to confidently identify the perpetrator, Chief Flately added.
Since police haven’t linked the recent rash of incidents with anyone, Chief Flatley cautioned the residents from jumping to conclusions about who the culprit may be.
“We have to keep an open mind that there may be more than one suspect,” he said. Chief Flatley urged residents to call 911 if they see a suspicious person in their neighborhood, promising that police will always respond to their calls.
But some in the audience said police had been dismissive of their concerns in the past. One victim, who lives on Second Street and asked to only be identified as “K,” said one police officer responding to her emergency call implied the victim knew what she was getting into when she bought a home in that area of Greenport.
Chief Flatley said that attitude was not the stance of the police department and reiterated his support.
Ms. Martilotta wondered why police had offered a $5,000 reward for information about a purse thief while the voyeur problem hadn’t gotten the same level of attention. Chief Flatley replied that the purse-snatcher case had solid video and photographic evidence that could be released to make an identification easier; the limited footage related to the prowler incidents isn’t of high enough quality to be useful, he said.
K said she worried what the voyeur might do if he catches children in the house, noting previous incidents involved a prowler exposing himself to women and children. Another victim said she was frustrated by the use of the term “Peeping Tom,” which she felt implied a less severe incident.
Longtime Greenport resident Chatty Allen said she’s been afraid to sleep in her home.
“I do not feel safe,” she said.
Some residents asked if restraining orders could be issued against the man they suspect of the trespassing, but Chief Flatley said a restraining order must be linked with a criminal case.
Others in the room said they’ve been forced to install expensive camera and lighting equipment to keep the voyeurs away. A public campaign to increase the legal penalties for voyeurism was also discussed.
As the conversation drifted to problems with a local thief, the group of worried victims and neighbors longed for the “good old days” when undesirable residents could be run out of town. Residents then asked that more cops be stationed on foot near their homes.
Chief Flatley said the department lacks the manpower to have a patrol car in that area of the neighborhood each night, but said he’d “redirect” early-morning shifts to watch the neighborhoods. He advised residents who see the voyeurs not to confront them, but to immediately get away from the windows and call police.
The more reports they receive, he said, the better the chance is that officers can catch the Peeping Toms in the act. Still, the frustration in the room hadn’t subsided by the end of the night.
“I don’t feel any better,” one resident said at the close of the meeting.
Photo: Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley responds to a resident’s concerns at a meeting Tuesday about prowler problems in Greenport. Victims and neighbors asked not to be photographed, fearing for their safety. (Credit: Paul Squire)