Locals say crimes such as prostitution and drug deals are taking place in broad daylight on the streets of Riverside and Flanders — and they have had enough.
At Monday night's meeting of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Civic Association, President Brad Bender said increased drug activity, as well as prostitution, in areas including Old Quogue Road, Wildwood Lake, and Vail Avenue, led to the civic group's reaching out to the for answers.
To that end, Southampton Town Police Sergeant Sue Ralph and police officer Craig Slovensky came to listen to residents' concerns and discuss escalating crime in the area. Southampton Town Police Chief William Wilson was initially slated to speak, but could not attend the meeting.
Vince Taldone, the FRNCA vice president, said frustrations are mounting amongst residents about a situation that is worsening. He and Billy Schaw, the president of the Riverside Revitalization Community Coalition, he said, were out recently, and saw blatant drug use.
"While we were out there in middle of day, we saw crack dealers, prostitutes — and a Southampton Town police car is down there, at the end of the street, facing the traffic circle. If they looked out their rearview mirror — it's out there," he said.
"That freedom the drug dealers feel is devastating to the area," Taldone added. "People are afraid to go out."
Even in New York City, Taldone said, he has never seen such blatant disregard for the law. "There's someone with a crack pipe, in the middle of the day, advertising — and a prostitute, sitting on a concrete block, marketing her wares."
Waving a plastic bad filled with needles and other drug paraphernalia he found littering his neighborhood, Schaw's temper flared, saying the current situation is unacceptable. "Enough is enough," he said. "This is just an insult."
Ralph, who has worked as an undercover police officer and a detective, said the Southampton Town Police Department knows exactly who the offenders are. But a number of factors, including a town police force that's down to 85 members, present challenges.
"We know our frequent flyers," she said. But the culprit have to be "caught in the act;" something that's not always easy, when the suspects begin to know and recognize all local law enforcement.
In addition, Ralph said she believes the answer lies in "cutting the head off the snake," and targeting suppliers.
Looking at arrests from Memorial Day through the present, Ralph said there have been approximately 196 arrests in the Flanders and Riverside area. That number includes 31 arrests for quality of life concerns, including open containers and public urination; 14 prostitution arrests in two scheduled "stings;" and 23 arrests related to the possession or sale of narcotics. That number, Ralph said, does not include the number of arrests made by the East End Drug Task Force, which adds another approximately 75 drug-related arrests to the total.
There have also been 16 arrests for driving while intoxicated or DWI while on drugs and 56 arrests for other issues including aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle; and 42 arrests for crimes including assault, burglary, larceny, and robbery.
Staffing, Ralph says, is a problem. "We are trying to increase the amount of officers that we staff up here," she said. "We are short-staffed right now." Although the department is supposed to be staffed at 92 officers, currently, there are 85, she said.
Although two sector cars are based in the Riverside and Flanders area, there are times when one car needs to be shut down. "It hurts us when there is only one officer up here," Ralph said. Some of the officers that are currently out are on sick leave; the police department cannot hire more officers without authorization from the town.
"When we’re short on the road, we cannot do proactive policing, we have to do reactive policing," she said. "We're just answering calls rather than hiding in woods looking for the prostitutes or drug dealers."
Residents questioned why there is only one or two sector cars stationed in an area of town where the amount of crime is disproportionately high, compared to areas such as Bridgehampton or Water Mill.
Ralph said there must be a car stationed in each of the nine sectors in Southampton Town -- with only three stationed east of the Shinnecock Canal, a "very dangerous" situation.
Taldone asked what the strategy was to target the problem with a reduced police force, so that the Riverside and Flanders communities are not targeted by drug dealers.
"When these people feel they are fairly 'safe' working the streets, it just draws more from other areas," he said. "Rather than going to other areas, they'll come here because they feel they're less likely to be arrested. What is the strategy to discourage these people? The criminal element doesn't feel the threat -- they're in the street at 12:30 in the afternoon," he said.
Ralph said after 9/11, the numbers of residents living full-time on the East End increased, resulting a surge in the need for services.
Others asked why New York State troopers cannot help, with a location in Riverside. Ralph said the police need to be the ones to enlist help from the troopers, who work mostly on the highways. But, she said, troopers regularly respond to the SHTPD's requests for aid.
Some residents believe landlords should carry responsibility for rentals that are being actively used for illegal activity; some asked why forfeiture laws were not enforced to seize property of landlords involved in drug crimes.
Slovensky said there are abandoned buildings, including one well-known location at 43 Vail Ave., where at least five or six individuals, are living in an home with no lights or electricity; prostitution and drug arrests have occurred at the site. Other, boarded up buildings on Old Quogue Road still have vagrants living inside. "It's a deathtrap," he said.
Only a town fire marshal or town code enforcement can condemn a property, Ralph said.
The problem is that in order to actively enforce the law and arrest an individual for trespassing, a landlord must sign a trespass warrant, something that is virtually "impossible" when the property is owned by a bank and it's difficult to find someone to sign the complaint, Ralph noted. "We can't always find the owner of the property," Ralph said.
Some asked why other areas, such as a location residents call "panty park," a known crime-ridden area adjacent to McDonald's on Flanders Road, are not closed off. Ralph said the area is public property. A parcel of land adjacent owned privately might have a fence, one resident suggested; the civic group discussed reaching out to the property owner.
At one point Schaw, outraged, blasted the police. "This whole thing tonight is really an insult. Where is the chief of police? It's a sheer waste of time."
Bender said Schaw must be respectful of guests or leave. Schaw left the meeting. Later, FRNCA members voted that a letter be sent to Schaw, explaining that he must remain respectful.
Ralph said she understood that residents are angry. "It's frustrating for us, too," she said. "It's very challenging in today's day and age. We don't have a pool of 42,000 cops like New York City."
One resident asked how the town works with Riverhead Town Police. Ralph explained that while police forces must remain in their own jurisdictions, the groups do meet to discuss suspects and crime.
Residents with concerns were urged to reach out to Southampton Town elected officials, attending town board meetings to make their voices heard about the need for additional police department staffing.
Bender said while the concern is usually a bump in taxes, "We are willing to bear spending more," if it means more police personnel for the Flanders and Riverside communities. "I'm all for more police protection," he said.