With gang-related activity gaining momentum across the region, members of the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office Gang Intelligence Unit participated in a gang awareness presentation at Riverhead High School Tuesday evening.
Speakers at the event, which was hosted by the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force, said awareness is the most effective tool in preventing gang proliferation.
“It only gets worse when communities think they don’t have a problem,” said Sgt. Joseph Nasta. “We have to be proactive and honest about gang activity to combat it.”
Sgt. Nasta and co-presenter Sgt. Steve Lundquist serve on the gang intelligence unit and both work with gang member inmates at the correctional facilities in Riverhead and Yaphank. Through their work with confidential informants, members of the unit learn about gang social strategies including recruitment methods, symbols and verbiage. They then apply that knowledge to gang prevention initiatives.
The men discussed active gangs in Suffolk County, including Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, White Supremacists and MS-13, which Sgt. Nasta called “extremely organized and particularly brutal.”
They said smaller neighborhood gangs have emerged throughout Suffolk County, such as the South Side Platoon and the Tip Top Boys.
Sgt. Nasta said a criminal gang is defined as having three or more members who share an identifying sign, symbol or name and engage in a pattern of criminal activity. Both men said they’ve seen a direct correlation between gang expansion and Long Island’s heroin epidemic.
“It’s simple, more members equal more money,” Sgt. Lundquist said. “Most are using, dealing or trafficking heroin. You do find them in places out here like the North and South forks where people have money to buy drugs.”
Sgt. Nasta said there are approximately 280 gang members and associates in sheriff’s custody from over 30 different gangs. He said Bloods are the largest gang in Suffolk County, representing approximately 40 percent of gang members.
“They recruit members by preaching loyalty, love, honor, respect and bettering the community,” Sgt. Nasta said. “But that’s not what they’re about.
The officers recalled the 2014 arrest of five alleged MS-13 members in connection with a shooting in Southold; a Tip Top Boys member shooting an officer during a traffic stop; and gang operated brothels on the East End exploiting underage females.
Sgt. Nasta explained that today many gangs consist of third- and- fourth-generation members who have been conditioned to gang life since childhood. They showed a video of a toddler yelling obscenities at women who appeared to be his mother and grandmother while using gang signs and language.
“Many gang members live it since day one,” Sgt. Nasta said. “It’s nearly impossible to get them to understand that mom and dad have been wrong their whole life, and that they should give up making $2,000 a day on the street to make $7.50 an hour flipping burgers.”
The officers stressed that although awareness is vital, they wanted the roughly 50 attendees to leave with an open mind.
“We want everyone here to remember that just because you see someone with a certain tattoo or wearing a particular color, it doesn’t mean they’re in a gang,” Sgt. Lundquist said.
Noreen LeCann, the vice-chair of the Anti-Bias Task Force and a 30-year veteran teacher at Riverhead High School, said she was pleased with the attendance.
“We’re very happy to see community members interested in learning about our issues,” she said. “We’re here for the community as a whole.”
The seminar is one of many outreach events the task force hopes to host.
“We’re here to educate the community, get the conversation going, and open an honest dialogue about issues like racism, discrimination and prejudice,” said task force chairwoman Connie Lassandro.
Sgt. Nasta said that anyone who sees gang graffiti or other signs of activity can call the Riverhead Gang Unit at 631-852-1864. To file a report on bias with anti-bias task force, discrimination or harassment visit www.townofriverheadny.gov.
Caption: Noreen LeCann (left to right), Connie Lassandro, Sgt. Steve Lundquist and Sgt. Joseph Nasta.