Under Siege

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.

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.[PAGEBREAK]

Home Sweet Home

Knowing the players in the Village can be an advantage. Knowing the local turf is also a key to effective policing. Toward that end, many of the officers live in Hempstead, including Officer Heath Hughes, a 5-year veteran of the force. He also patrols the area he lives in and says that is helpful. "People tell me stuff," he explains.

But policing your home turf also has its disadvantages. Hughes copes daily with the shock of seeing many of the kids he grew up with now becoming criminals and victims. "The pretty girl from high school is now skin and bones, on drugs or sick with AIDS. I ask myself what happened," he says.

The constant pace of patrol calls also takes its toll on the officers' personal lives. "We go to people's houses and intervene in their lives and when we go home we don't want to deal with our problems," says Hughes.

Officer Tim Thurmon adds that sometimes the pressure of constantly dealing with tragedy becomes overwhelming. He cites an incident that occurred when a disaster call had most of the department's and county's resources tied up elsewhere as his most disturbing experience on the job. "A guy's head got run over by a bus, the same time as the Avianca plane crash," he recalls. "There were no ambulances. I had to scoop up the body."

Thurmon says a year later that he became haunted by the experience. "I saw that head every day. That stayed with me for over a year. That is something they don't teach you in the academy."

Busy, Busy, Busy

Perhaps the reason Thurmon's reaction to the accident victim's terrible injuries waited so long to manifest is that there's not much time to think about things while they are happening on the busy streets of Hempstead.

In 2002, with the help of a federal task force, the department made 92 drug arrests in three weeks. In the first four months of the year, it made approximately 36 gun arrests.

With the assistance of federal and local agencies, the officers say they somehow manage to get their job done. But, they add, they wish they had more of their own to handle it.

"I believe [our officers] are grateful and appreciative that we have other agencies willing to come in and assist," says Hempstead PD Chief James Russo. "But on the other hand, the officers and myself would like to have more resources so we feel we can independently do it."

Meanwhile, the day-to-day crimes have to be handled by the Hempstead force, and the relentless calls continue to leave the officers with little time to think about the dangers or the frustrations.

"One of these days one of us is going to get hurt. When we do search warrants it is amazing that no one gets shot. It has been dumb luck at this point. When we are finished, we say, "Man, we got lucky again."

"I give all the credit to the officers," says Russo. "There is no doubt in my mind that they work harder than the majority of the officers across the state." He adds that a survey has been taken that showed the Hempstead officers handled more calls each than their counterparts in New York City, just 25 miles away.

High Morale

Despite their massive workload, the Hempstead officers have taken a leadership role in police activities and organizations. Russo serves as president of the New York State association of Chiefs of Police. Det. Smith is on the executive board of the East Coast Gang Association and he and Det. Seranno continue to travel throughout the Country to lecture on gangs. The bike unit trains federal, state, and local mountain bike units, earning them national certification. And the department's rangemasters train more than 2,500 officers a year from over a dozen agencies, including New York City Sheriff's Deputies and Narcotics units, Nassau County probation, and Housing and Urban Development department agents.

Hempstead PD's active community involvement includes school programs, civilian police academies, and a summer camp. Russo says good community relations is an important factor in maintaining the force's high morale. "When there is a good rapport between the police and union and Village it helps."

Russo's thoughts are echoed by Hempstead P.B.A. president Richard Wells. "The Village is very supportive of the police. They treat us fairly at the bargaining table. If a controversial incident like a shooting or arrest happens, which can be common here, they are always there to back us up, both the Village [leaders] and the Chief," he says. "They are reasonable people and we don't take things personally."

Wells believes that another reason morale is high on the Hempstead force is that the officers have the kind of strong bond that you see in soldiers in combat. "I think in Hempstead the cops know what they are up against and when it is time to go on the street they have to stay together. Here they know they can depend on their brother and sister officers," he says.

Of course, it's not always easy to maintain high spirits in Hempstead and one of the reasons is the department's budget. Because of the large number of illegal aliens in the Village, the tax base often does not cover the expenses needed to run a modern police department.

The main headquarters building is drab and sorely in need of repair. Most of the work is done in cramped basement offices next to holding cages for prisoners. An armory that was given to the police department remains barren, due to lack of funds to refurbish it. Some of the officers who were transferred to the building spent their own time and money to paint and put in fans.

But despite poor working conditions and hectic and often frustrating days, the officers continue to get the job done.

And perhaps one of the best indicators that Hempstead police are successful is that not only is crime continuing to go down in the Village, the officers say they would not trade places with cops anywhere else. They've gotten used to being busy, and the vast majority say they would not want it any other way.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based writer who covers the police beat for the New York Times. She is a frequent contributor to POLICE.

Page 1 of 2335
Next Page