Police chiefs and other top brass from agencies across the East End met this week to share information with one another on local gang activities during a meeting called by the Suffolk County District Attorney.
The three-hour meeting in Riverside Wednesday follows last month’s gang shooting in a residential area of Southold, after which now five alleged members of MS-13 attacked two men from a rival gang with guns and a machete.
That incident, followed by much local and regional media coverage, has brought attention to the growing problem of gangs on the East End.
Three local chiefs interviewed Thursday all agreed better communication between the 10 East End police agencies, including the towns and villages, will help in combating gangs. They said more meetings are on the horizon, and that county police and the DA promised to bring some of their resources, including educational programs, to the East End.
“He wanted to hear from every jurisdiction on what kind of gang activity that we’ve been seeing,” said Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley said of District Attorney Thomas Spota. “Ourselves and Riverhead had more to talk about than probably those on the South Fork. And he had his key staff there from the DA’s office to listen to what’s going on.”
Mr. Spota was not immediately available for comment.
Suffolk County and state police investigators were also present, the local chiefs said.
Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller said one challenge for local enforcement agencies is trying to figure out which so-called gang members are actually involved in gangs and participating in criminal activities with ties to the city, elsewhere in the country or in other countries, and who might just be people trying to act tough.
“Here it seems to be all about whoever is the baddest person out there,” he said. “I say, is that a gang thing? Or, is it just, ‘I’m top dog.’ I really don’t know. We’ve had incidents over the past year where there’s a Blood shooting at a Blood. Does that make any sense? From the discussion yesterday, other [agencies] are going through the same thing.”
Whether someone’s a gang member or a poser doesn’t change the fact that they might pose a threat to the community and police, and everyone present Wednesday agreed the departments would work toward establishing a central data-sharing system police can reference when responding to a report or conducting a traffic stop.
“With the sharing of information,” said Southampton Town Police Robert Pearce, “we can search for a particular name and that could give us a heads-up on whether that person may be affiliated with a gang, or if there’s a gun out there associated with a particular person or a gang.
“We want our officers on the street to know that during a traffic stop.”
To be sure, the police said there are data-sharing programs in place, and many local agencies rely on the sheriff’s office for gang intelligence out of the jail.
“And we may lock up several individuals and they do go to jail, then they become gang members and then when they’re released, now they’re a member of MS-13 or the Bloods or whatever,” Chief Pearce said.
Chief Hegermiller said that since East End policing evolved in a way where law enforcement agencies have long had to contend with challenges as far as sharing information and resources.
“If you had to start over again and build a police department, you wouldn’t do it this way,” he said. “Basically, we have our own systems and that’s the way it grew, the way it formed, back when there were [few] people living in Riverhead Town. Really, someone dropped the ball way back when when it should have been said, ‘We’re all in law enforcement and we’re all going to this one computer system, so we’re all looking at the same thing and sharing the same information.”
Moving all departments to the same computer systems now, Chief Pearce said, would be very expensive.
“That’s the biggest drawback; it’s so much money to invest,” he said. “We’re in the process of updating our software, which is a couple decades old, and the county’s actually in the process of updating theirs. It would really be great if everybody could update to the same thing.
“In the meantime, we could establish common data depositories.”
Chief Flatley said he and town and village as well as school officials were also planning to meet Thursday to talk about an approach on communicating with a nervous public.
“The challenge is to allay the community’s concerns,” he said. “We are taking it seriously. We do have a plan.”
He expects that officials will host community forums to talk about gangs and gang awareness.
“We don’t just want to lecture people,” he said. “We want some feedback too.”