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Under Siege

Hempstead, N.Y.'s police force copes with a daily influx of commuters and nightly gatherings of unruly youths, drug dealers, and violent gangs.

January 01, 2003  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Officers of the Hempstead Village (N.Y.) Police Department actually patrol two cities. By day the population of the tiny Long Island village triples from its Census figure of 70,000, as workers pour into the community to staff local, state, and federal government offices. By night, Hempstead changes.

When the sun sets, the streets of the 3.5-square-mile Nassau County city come alive with residents, finding escape on the street from overcrowded housing. In addition, local clubs attract groups of partygoers from neighboring low-income communities. Most of these youths are just socializing, but many are buying or selling drugs. Then there's the hardcore gang members who just stand and stare at patrol cars driving by, and in those stares there is clearly the look of hate.

Officers of the Hempstead force say they have learned to accept the glares of hate. What they find more unsettling is that they are being surveiled.

"They know us better than we know them," explains Officer Steve Horowitz. "They know what our hours are, know our partners, and know the cars we drive. They even know which officers will get out of the car and which won't. They have different names for everybody."

Community of Contrasts

"All roads lead to Hempstead," says Sgt. Brian Schumacher. Unfortunately, roads into and inside the Village are often filled with signs of violence. For example, one block with three corners is filled with flowers and pictures marking the spot where three gang members were killed in three different incidents.

But Hempstead is not a war-zone. It is instead a community of contrasts. Small estates with manicured lawns and welcoming porches are situated less than a mile from aging brick projects with brown steel doors and peeling white numbers. Bodegas with angry teenagers outside are a bike ride away from a brand new shopping complex. And cemeteries honoring the lives of fallen heroes are not far from makeshift memorials for young residents who never had the time to really make a difference.

Policing this diverse community often seems an impossible task, one that is filled with danger for the officers.

There is no doubt that keeping order in Hempstead provides a challenge for its police department. With most of its overflowing population characterized as "low income" and "mixed minority," Hempstead is gang territory, and the job of maintaining order appears, on the surface, to be overwhelming. But a closer look reveals that the Hempstead PD is both efficient and effective, according to both the police themselves and local civilians.

The people who work in Hempstead, for the most part, say they feel safe. A police presence is obvious and so is the department's attempt to ensure people's safety. That's, of course, during the day.

The nights are another story. "During the nighttime we have domestics, assaults, drinking, drugs. We attract people from all over Long Island," says Lt. Vincent Neefus. "People come in at 3 or 4 in the morning. and hang out in the streets. Then we get the assaults, robberies, and fights. Literally, we have officers going from one assault to another, from an accident, to a shooting, to a stabbing."

On Your Own

Handling all of this action is a department made up of 115 sworn, with only 55 officers in the patrol bureau. It's no wonder that everyone in the department believes it needs more personnel and could easily double its personnel roster.

The shortage of personnel is nothing new in Hempstead. Ten years ago a lieutenant responded to a robbery-in-progress call at a local bank. Arriving within seconds of the call, he leaped from the car, sprinting into the bank. Minutes later after learning the alarm was set in error he returned to his patrol car and was asked by this reporter about not waiting for backup as per procedures. "In Hempstead, we don't have time to wait for backup," he replied.

Things haven't changed. With an average of only eight patrol officers working each 8-hour shift, the department has approximately 115 calls a day. "Backup is not a luxury we can always afford to have," says Horowitz. "Sometimes we have to do things on our own. It makes you think more."

Gang Duty

Police in Hempstead are often outnumbered and outgunned. Gangs are a serious problem, and gun calls come out often during the night tours.
But the department has by no means just surrendered the streets to the gangs. The Hempstead gang squad has been a leader in innovative gang prevention. "We had to adapt tactically to the changing population here," says Neefus.

Adapting includes assigning two full-time detectives, Ricky Smith and Joe Serrano, to the problem. Both men have become national experts on gangs.

Unlike many of the departments in surrounding communities, Hempstead PD took a leading and aggressive role when it first discovered a gang problem. As a result, it identified more than 800 gang members in the Village and made a library of photos, identification marks, and names of gang members. Officers have also identified a variety of gangs on their streets, including Salvadoreans with Pride, Mara Salatrucha, Bloods, Crips, Folk, Latin Kings, Netas, Hells Angels, and seven local gangs.

"We know the gang members. When crime happens we know the players and their nicknames," says Det. Smith. "It is a continuing problem. It will not go away." But, he adds, it is at least getting under control.

The detectives patrol Hempstead and can easily pick out the gang members and often name them. One worrisome trend is that, according to Smith, the gangs are now recruiting younger.

CONTINUED: Under Siege «   Page 1 of 2   »

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