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MS-13

From left, Ramon Arevalo Lopez, Oscar Canales Molina, and Nobeli Montes Zuniga. Photos from SCDA.

Three men arrested for allegedly stabbing a Huntington High School student last week are known MS-13 gang members, who entered the country illegally and are Huntington High School students, according to Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D).

Ramon Arevalo Lopez, 19; Oscar Canales Molina, 17; and Nobeli Montes Zuniga, 20, were arrested by Suffolk County police Jan. 9 shortly after a 16-year-old male was stabbed during a large fight behind Burger King, located on New York Avenue in Huntington Station. Each of the defendants is charged with one count of second-degree assault, a class D felony.

“While it is unclear what the groups were fighting about, one thing is clear: everyone arrested are confirmed members of MS-13.”

— Geraldine Hart

“While it is unclear what the groups were fighting about, one thing is clear: everyone arrested are confirmed members of MS-13,” Geraldine Hart, Suffolk County police commissioner said. “This incident is a reminder of the gang’s violent ways.”

Suffolk county police officers responded to a 911 call reporting a large fight involving approximately 15 high school-aged students in the rear parking lot of Burger King at approximately 2:30 p.m.

Sini said a group of Huntington High School students went to the fast-food restaurant after school let out and saw six Hispanic males staring at them in a ‘menacing way.’ The teens reportedly felt uncomfortable and left the store but were followed by the group of men that included the defendants. The group allegedly charged and attacked the students while wielding bats and knives, according to Sini, stabbing one teen through the back and injuring a second individual.

The 16-year-old male, whose identity was not released by police, was transported to Good Samaritan Hospital where he was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

Witnesses reported allegedly seeing the three defendants fleeing the scene in a black 2007 Toyota Scion with a large rear spoiler. Officers Guido, Indelicato and Rodriguez located a matching vehicle nearby shortly afterwards, according to Hart, that contained Lopez, Canales Molina and Zuniga.

The three defendants had blood on their clothing and hands, as well as the vehicle, according to police. Sini said Arevalo Lopez made an admission to the arresting officers that he stabbed the teen, while Canales Molina and Montes Zuniga both allegedly admitted to police they were involved in the fight. Canales Molina had two knives on him at the time of his arrest, including a small one covered in blood found concealed in his boot, according the district attorney. Each of the three defendants have been previously confirmed as MS-13 members by Suffolk County Police Department, according to Sini, and had records in the county’s gang database.

“Just because [Lopez]’s been ‘confirmed’ as a member in an ill-conceived Suffolk County Police Department database isn’t proof of anything. He is innocent of the charges that have been leveled against him.”

—Jason Bassett

“What we know about MS-13 is that they use violence to — in their minds — ensure that they are given respect,” he said. “Certainly, this type of incident fits within the modus operandi of MS-13, which is essentially random and seemingly senseless acts of violence.

Lopez’s attorney, Jason Bassett of Hauppauge, strongly refuted all charges and district attorney’s allegations that his client is or has been involved in gang activity.

“[Lopez] is not an MS-13 gang member,” Bassett said. “Just because he’s been ‘confirmed’ as a member in an ill-conceived Suffolk County Police Department database isn’t proof of anything. He is innocent of the charges that have been leveled against him.”

Montes Zuniga’s defense attorney, Norley Castañeda, declined to give any statement regarding the incident or his possible gang affiliation. Canales Molina’s attorney could not be reached for comment.

All three defendants were arraigned Jan. 10 in Central Islip court before Suffolk County Judge Gaetan Lozito who set bai for each at $35,000 cash or $75,000 bond. No one had posted bail as of Jan. 15.

The incident occurred two days after hundreds of concerned citizens attended Huntington school district’s board of education meeting to address concerns about a New York Times Magazine piece that chronicled the story of an immigrant teen, Alex, who was accused of being associated with MS-13 in some part based on his interactions with the school resource officer and, as a result, deported in July 2018.

Sini said all three defendants are currently enrolled as students at Huntington High School after having allegedly entered the country illegally. The district attorney said his records show Canales Molina was detained by U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement in July 2017 and released from custody by a federal judge in November 2017. Similarly, Lopez was detained by ICE in October 2017, and was released from custody by a federal judge in June 2018.

“Even though we’ve had a lot of success the last couple of years in combating MS-13, it’s important that we remain vigilant.”

— Tim Sini

Huntington Superintendent James Polansky requested additional police presence at the high school the day following the stabbing, according to the police commissioner, and additional officers and resources will be provided as necessary.

Despite this incident and recent media attention, Sini said he remains optimistic about the county’s efforts to crackdown on MS-13 is paying off.

“That’s why you see historic crime reduction in Suffolk County, that’s why you see MS-13 incidents are down significantly when compared to 2015-16,” the district attorney said. “Even though we’ve had a lot of success the last couple of years in combating MS-13, it’s important that we remain vigilant.”

The police investigation into the incident is ongoing and there is the possibility of additional charges being added, according to Sini. The case is being prosecuted by the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau’s Gang Unit.

Huntington High School. File Photo

An outpouring of anger, tears and frustration rocked Huntington Monday night as hundreds of residents expressed concern about an article published by The New York Times Magazine during the school’s holiday break.

There was standing-room only inside the auditorium of Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School Jan. 7 as parents, teachers and students lined up to address Huntington school district’s board of education in reaction to the Dec. 27 publication of the article, “How a crackdown on MS-13 caught up innocent high school students,” written by ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier.

The Times article focused on the experience of an immigrant teenager at Huntington High School, named Alex, who was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in June 2017 for suspected MS-13 gang affiliation. The story alleges Huntington school district’s school resource officer, Suffolk County police officer Andrew Fiorello, provided information and school documents to ICE that led to the student’s deportation in July 2018.

“The issue is very clear: Our classmates are being accused of participating in gang activity on evidence that does not prove their involvement beyond a reasonable doubt,” Steve Yeh, Huntington’s Class of 2017 valedictorian said. “Our school failed to protect our classmate.”

The facts questioned

Brenden Cusack, principal of Huntington High School, was the first to step forward Monday night to refute the magazine piece he claims “mischaracterizes” events portrayed.

“It is a clear misrepresentation of our school and of me, both personally and professionally,” he said. “The story as published is not the full story.”

In the article, Cusack reportedly wrote up Alex for allegedly defacing school property — a calculator — with gang symbols. The article states he informed the student it would be reported to the school resource officer.

Huntington parents and community members give a standing ovation after high school Principal Brendan Cusack’s speech. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

The high school principal did not address the facts behind the immigrant teen’s case before the crowd gathered, citing student privacy laws.

“While it would be simple to argue statements and context in numerous places within the article, it does not change the fact that the events, as presented, are beyond upsetting,” read a Dec. 28 letter issued by the school district in response to the article. “We deeply regret the harm faced by any family in our community who has been separated from a child.”

This sentiment was echoed again by Huntington’s Superintendent of Schools James Polansky Monday night.

“There are many things about it that are deeply upsetting,” he said.

Huntington school district’s staff is not the only source used in the magazine article upset with the portrayals in the piece. Joanne Adam, director of Huntington Public Library, said the article claims its head of security banned students who have been suspended from school for suspected gang activity is untrue.

“It’s not our policy to ban people simply because they might be suspected of being in a gang,” Adam said.

Both library branches, Huntington and Huntington Station, are staffed by in-house security personnel and do not have any specific policies with regards to handling gang violence, according to Adam. In the last four years, she said she could not recall any incidents where Suffolk County Police Department was contacted for any related gang activity.

“If someone is suspected of being in a gang and using the library, they are just as welcome to use it as the next person,” Adam said. “So long as they are coming in and using a library as they should be.”

 

Immigrant students voice fears

Huntington High School students decried the current atmosphere and actions they’ve seen made by school officials in their interactions with immigrants and students of racial minorities.

“I know what it’s like to be a Latino in Huntington,” Landary Rivas Argueta, a 2016 Huntington graduate said. “It’s not welcoming, it’s not safe, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

More than a dozen recent high school graduates, collaborating as the Concerned Alumni for Protecting Our Classmates, say regardless of the factual truths in the Times article they have concerns over the adequacy of services provided for immigrant students and the district’s treatment of racial minorities.

“I know what it’s like to be a Latino in Huntington. It’s not welcoming, it’s not safe, it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”

—Landary Rivas Argueta

“We believe the school administration is responsible for providing a safe environment for all students to learn and grown,” read a Jan. 7 written statement to Huntington’s school board. “We were appalled to discover that not all of our peers felt a shared sense of safety.”

Savannah Richardson is a 2016 graduate who was enrolled in the district’s dual-language program as a Mexican immigrant whose picture hangs on a banner over Jack Abram’s auditorium.

“For years, I believed the [school resource officer] was placed there to protect us,” Richardson said. “I was never aware information shared with the SRO would end up in the hands of ICE.”

Xavier Palacios, a Huntington school trustee who privately practices as an immigration attorney, was quoted in the Times article. He said the information sharing was between the district’s school resource officer and ICE was not done with purposeful intent to harm.

“What happened to Alex was an unfortunate series of events of unintended consequences — I don’t think anyone meant to harm him,” Palacios said. “The truth is procedures failed Alex and possibly other students and we must change that.”

But Huntington parent Josh Dubnau said he first reached out to Huntington’s administration via email with concerns about the relationship between Suffolk’s school resource officer program and ICE over the summer, following a PBS “Frontline” documentary titled “The Gang Crackdown,” regarding treatment of immigrants and suspected MS-13 members, that ran in February 2018.

After several email exchanges with Polansky, Dubnau said he was reassured the district’s students safety was protected without a loss of rights.

“My trust in you [Polansky] at that time is something I deeply regret,” Dubnau said. “This school board and administration needs to re-earn our trust and it will be a challenge for you to do so.”

 

Suffolk’s SRO program

Polansky said Huntington school district has been involved in the county police department’s school resource officer program for more than 15 years. The program places uniformed police officers inside public school buildings to serve as points of contact between the school district, its staff and students, and other law enforcement officials in order to increase school safety.

“I think the role of law enforcement in schools in today’s political climate is open to considerable debate.”

— James Polansky

“I think the role of law enforcement in schools in today’s political climate is open to considerable debate,” the superintendent said.

Polansky sits on the executive board of Suffolk County Schools Superintendents Association, an organization of school administrators representing the county’s 69 school districts. The association has repeatedly called on the police department to further expand the SRO program, most recently as part of its blueprint for enhancing school safety.

“Part of our mission is to keep schools and campuses safe,” Elwood Superintendent Kenneth Bossert said in a phone interview. Bossert is president of the county schools superintendents association. “Having a strong collaborative relationship with the police force and having officers present in the building who are familiar with the campus, familiar with emergency response plans, familiar with faculty and students, go a long way to ensure the safety of our students.”

School resource officers are employees of the police department, not the school district, and there is no formal agreement as to the position’s duties and responsibilities, according to Bossert.

“I think those folks who right now have some real concerns about the presence of police officers don’t necessarily have an understanding of that job,” he said. “If they did have a better understanding of the role and responsibilities of an SRO it would help alleviate some of the concerns being expressed in my neighboring community.”

The superintendents association has called for formal written document of an SRO officer’s “role and responsibility” dating back to a May 2018 letter sent out to Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) and the police department. Still, nothing concrete has been developed as to date.

“We need clarity and guidelines. If we can’t get those, I am not comfortable having those officers in our buildings going forward.”

— Jennifer Hebert

“We need clarity and guidelines,” Huntington trustee Jennifer Hebert said. “If we can’t get those, I am not comfortable having those officers in our buildings going forward.”

There is no law mandating that school districts participate in the SRO program, according to Bossert, but he is not aware of any district that has voiced opposition to being a participant.

“I urge this board to carefully consider any decisions and weigh the long-term consequences  against the perceived short-term benefits,” said James Graber, president of the Associated Teachers of Huntington. “A year ago, there were calls for more security in this school district because of the incident in Parkland [Florida]. To move in the other direction would be a mistake.”

 

Future of SRO program in Huntington

Huntington school administrators said they’ve seen the immediate need to review its existing policies and procedures, particularly when it comes to the role of its school
resource officer.

“In light of current national and local concerns, however, we believe that we must advocate for an additional layer of organization addressing the relationship between school districts and the police department,” read the Dec. 28 letter to the community. “This can be accomplished through formulation of a memorandum of understanding.”

Huntington parents and community members came to the meeting Jan. 7 armed with a detailed list of suggestions of what should be in the proposed agreement between the school district and Suffolk’s police department.

Diana Weaving, of Huntington, presented school trustees with detailed suggestions from a concerned citizens group regarding the treatment of immigrant students and the duties of the SRO officers. It suggested the memorandum of understanding includes extensive data collection including the number of times law enforcement is called to Huntington schools, number of arrests, which arrests were school-related offense, the location and date of offense and note of the involved student’s age, race, ethnicity, gender and English language learner status.

In light of current national and local concerns, however, we believe that we must advocate for an additional layer of organization addressing the relationship between school districts and the police department.”

— Huntington school district Dec. 28 letter

Weaving requested the district provides SROs, security guards and school staff with more extensive training in cultural competency, racial bias and prejudice, and restorative justice.

Aidan Forbes, Huntington’s Class of 2018 valedictorian and member of Concerned Alumni for Protecting Our Classmates, called for more in-depth investigation of a student’s character before they are reported to an SRO along with changes to the district’s suspension policies. Zach McGinniss, also a 2018 graduate, demanded more cultural training for SROs and issued a request the school district not share student’s information with third parties — including ICE — without court order or consent of a student’s parents.

All involved called for a written contract, or memorandum of understanding, to be drafted as soon as possible. The superintendent said it will necessitate a process involving community input to draft an agreement, and it will require both Suffolk police department and the school district to come to the table. He cited some Nassau County school districts which have documents that can be used as examples, but each must be uniquely catered to each individual district.

Polansky said he envisions the proposed document could be used as a template that could be used by other Suffolk schools. Trustee Hebert agreed, saying Huntington must make every possible effort to transform the SRO system into a better program.

“I see us as being given the mandate of having to figure this out for everyone else,” Hebert said. “And we will.”

Huntington school board will further discuss the SCPD’s SRO program at their upcoming February meeting.

Juan Lopez of Huntington Station was convicted of using the threat of violence to recruit people into the gang MS-13. Photo from Suffolk County District Attorney’s office

A Huntington Station man has been found guilty of being an MS-13 gang member who used the threat of violence in attempt to recruit new members.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) announced April 9 that Juan Lopez, 32, was convicted by a jury of first-degree attempted coercion, a felony. Lopez faces a maximum of four years in jail.

“The victims did not join; they did the right thing,” Sini said. “That’s why it’s critical that the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is here to protect the victims of not only gang violence, but also of gang intimidation.”

On April 16, 2017, Lopez was approached by two young men at the soccer fields of Manor Field Park in Huntington Station at approximately 1 p.m. in attempts to recruit them to MS-13, according to the district attorney. This occured less than five days after the murder of four young men near a park in Central Islip by alleged gang members.

Tattoos denoting Juan Lopez’s connection to the gang MS-13, according to District Attorney Tim Sini. Photo from Suffolk County District Attorney’s office

“When the boys resisted, this defendant stated to them in unequivocal terms, ‘this is how you end up dead in the park,’” Sini said. “My message to Mr. Lopez is: That’s how you end up in jail in Suffolk County.”

Lopez was arrested by Suffolk County Police Department the following day, April 17, 2017.

The case was prosecuted by the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau’s Gang Unit. The Gang Unit was launched in January 2018 by the newly-elected district attorney to focus exclusively on investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by gang members, such as members of MS-13.

Sini said prosecutors’s evidence against Lopez at trial included witness statements in addition to his own tattoos. Lopez has a “1” tattoed on his right arm near his shoulder with a matching “3” tattooed on his left arm near the shoulder joint. In addition, he had a skull with two horns tattooed lower on his left arm, forming the letter “M” when viewed upside down. The district attorney said these tattoes are symbolic of membership in the MS-13 gang.

“We will spare no resources, we will spare no effort to eradicate MS-13 from our communities,”he said.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini during his inauguration. File photo by Alex Petroski

By Kyle Barr

Amid escalating gang activity in Suffolk County, District Attorney Tim Sini (D) announced the creation of a gang task force to combat the rise, specifically of MS-13, the group linked to six Suffolk killings in 2017.

The gang unit, which has already begun operations, exists inside the new Enhanced Prosecution Bureau within the district attorney’s office. Sini said during a press conference Feb. 7 that the unit will focus specifically on prosecuting gang members, even lower-level ones or members who commit non-gang-related crimes. Just before the event a meeting took place, which is said to be the first of many bi-weekly meetings, co-led by the DA’s office and Suffolk County Police Department.

“This is an enormous shift in paradigm — this will bring the fight to a whole new level.”

— Tim Sini

“Previously, when a gang member committed an offense, that prosecution issue was handled by any number of different bureaus within the district attorney’s office,” Sini said. “It created a system where gang members could fall through the cracks or be treated like any other individual. That is no longer going to be the case. We will be strategic in our prosecution against gang members.”

Though overall crime rates in Suffolk County have gone down, there has been persistent MS-13 activity, including the double homicide of young Brentwood residents Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, and the murder of four young Latino men in 2016. More than a dozen alleged gang members were arrested in 2017 and charged with their murders. Many more murders, attempted kidnappings and drug sales have also been linked to the gang.

The new focus on gang activity has become internalized in other law enforcement agencies, such as Suffolk County’s Sheriff’s Department, which plans to revamp its gang unit inside the office and expand its data analytics and predictive models relating to gang crime.

“Part of it is going to be a learning curve, because my staff is going to have to learn my ideals and how I want to look at things, and it will require more resources,” Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said. “The Suffolk County PD is assisting us with some technology that will allow us to look at these patterns differently, and not only patterns, but individuals as well.”

Sini said that with this change the county will be more effective in deciding whether a crime should be processed locally or federally.

The Suffolk County PD is assisting us with some technology that will allow us to look at these patterns differently, and not only patterns, but individuals as well.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

“This is an enormous shift in paradigm — this will bring the fight to a whole new level,” Sini said. “In some instances, it may make sense to start a case in the state system where we’re able to develop probable cause in an efficient manner while it may take longer to build that federal case.”

The 14-member gang unit includes eight assistant district attorneys and six special investigators. The gang unit will be led by deputy bureau chief Kate Wagner, and the Enhanced Prosecution Bureau will be led by veteran prosecutor Christiana McSloy, who has previously worked on gang cases in Nassau County’s District Attorney’s office.

The assistant district attorneys assigned to the gang unit will be on call on a rotating basis. and available around the clock for when police need assistance or advice. One of the prosecutors speaks Spanish.

The district attorney’s office also announced a partnership with Suffolk County Crime Stoppers, which will still allow community members to send in tips on gang activity that, if leads to an arrest, offers cash rewards up to $5,000.

The new program was announced just over a week after President Donald Trump (R) made mention of MS-13 in his State of the Union address. He cited the rash of gang killings as reason for America to change its immigration laws. MS-13 activity in Suffolk also inspired the president to visit the Brentwood Suffolk Police Department Academy campus during summer 2017 in which he addressed a crowd of officers.

Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco was honored for his impact surrounding gang violence and rehabilitation during Council For Unity’s annual Champions for Children Gala Nov. 9. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

In 2006, a year after he was elected Suffolk County sheriff, Vincent DeMarco took a huge risk. In an effort to reduce gang violence in the Riverhead correctional facility, DeMarco brought a seemingly ill-fated program into the jail where rival gang leaders and members — Bloods, Crips, MS-13, Latin Kings and Aryan Brotherhood — gather in a room to share stories, make peace and help one another escape a life of crime. In doing so, Riverhead became the first county jail in the nation to embrace Council for Unity, a nonprofit founded in Brooklyn in 1975 to keep gang activities out of schools and communities and replace a culture of despair with a culture of hope. The newly-appointed sheriff’s gamble quickly paid off.

Robert DeSena, Vincent DeMarco, Alex Bryan and Butch Langhorn were recognized for their work. Photo by Kevin Redding

In a matter of months, DeMarco and correctional facility members watched the entire jail system turn around, as inmates who came to the prison as enemies began to form friendships through their similar experiences. The men, many of whom are imprisoned for violent behavior and drug dealing, find careers after they’ve served their sentences thanks to job and education opportunities offered in the program.

Inmate population and the rate of recidivism at Riverhead are now at an all-time low and the jail serves as a model for other correctional facilities statewide. The Riverhead Police Department has since developed its own companion anti-gang program with the organization.

“DeMarco has changed the dynamic in that facility and has created hope for inmates who live without hope,” said Robert DeSena, president and founder of Council For Unity, who met with DeMarco and his staff to pitch the radical concept in February 2006. “He has a tremendous social conscience and his perception of incarcerated people is atypical. He saw they had the capacity to be reclaimed and he went with it.”

DeSena and others involved in the program, including ex-gang members, honored DeMarco for his significant impact surrounding these criminals’ rehabilitation during Council For Unity’s annual Champions for Children Gala at the Garden City Hotel Nov. 9.

“I had this smirk on my face as if to say to ‘this guy is nuts. You’re going to get Crips and everybody together Kumbaya-ing? That’s not happening here. But Sheriff DeMarco is somebody who’s willing to take a chance. And let me tell you, it was worth a chance. I love this man.”

— Butch Langhorn

The annual event aims to celebrate public figures on Long Island active in the reduction of gang violence in society. DeMarco, who has served as sheriff for 12 years and decided earlier this year he would not seek a fourth term, was on the short list of honorees alongside Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas and Council for Unity alumnus Dr. James Li.

He received a plaque referring to him as a visionary, reformer and humanitarian “for creating a climate of hope and possibility for the inmates in his charge.”

While introducing DeMarco to receive his honor, Butch Langhorn, assistant to the sheriff who oversees the Council For Unity sessions at the jail, recalled the first meeting he and DeMarco had with DeSena.

“While we were listening, I had this smirk on my face as if to say to ‘this guy is nuts,’” Langhorn said. “You’re going to get Crips and everybody together Kumbaya-ing? That’s not happening here. But Sheriff DeMarco is somebody who’s willing to take a chance. And let me tell you, it was worth a chance. I love this man.”

During his 2005 campaign, DeMarco advocated for more programs that aimed to work with inmates and provide opportunities to change their lives. This came in response to a New York State mandate at the time to build a new $300 million correctional facility in Suffolk as the county was pushing 1,800 to 2,000 inmates per day. He was determined to not only lower the population, but make sure the inmates were working toward a goal beyond bars.

“I thought, this is corrections and we’re supposed to correct their behavior,” DeMarco said at the podium. “The facility isn’t about warehousing people and just putting them back into the same situation they came from.”

Although he admitted being skeptical of the idea of intermingling gang members at first, fearing it would only lead to more violence, the sheriff said he left the meeting with DeSena fully on board.

Mario Bulluc, a former MS-13 gang member, went trough the Riverhead jail program and spoke during the gala. Photo by Kevin Redding

“He did this Jedi mind trick on me and I was spun around,” DeMarco said laughing. “I just kept thinking, ‘this could work, this could work.’ It was the right thing to do and we’ve come a long way. A couple people who went through the program are out now and they’re getting paychecks, they’re married. [The program] got them out of gang culture. That warms my heart and makes it all worthwhile for me. I know we’ve helped change people’s lives, so this is a big honor for me. You always seem to remember the first and last thing you did in a position and Bob was the first meeting I ever took and now there’s this. It’s a nice little cap off.”

Mario Bulluc, 22, who was an MS-13 leader when he was a student at Riverhead High School and now serves as an employee of the council, sought refuge in the program after countless close calls with death and time spent in the Riverhead jail. He now devotes his life to helping kids get out of gangs.

“Council For Unity saved my life — DeMarco and DeSena are the greatest men I’ve ever met,” said Bulluc, who joined the infamous gang when he was 14. “They try and get to the root of our problems and help us see we are the same people no matter our race, gang, or gang colors. If I can change, anybody can.”

Alex Bryant, a retired corrections officer at Riverhead and a Council For Unity advisor, said the council was put to the test in the correctional facility and has been proven to be life-changing. He pointed to DeMarco’s leadership as the reason for its success.

“I’ve been under several sheriffs in my 30-year tenure in the field,” Bryant said. “DeMarco is by far the best. He is progressive and eons ahead of most sheriffs across the state of New York.”

Huntington High School. File Photo

Huntington High School found itself in the crosshairs of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) latest initiative that takes aims at cracking down on Long Island gang activity, much to the surprise of school officials.

Cuomo announced Sept. 13 his plan for deployment of a new Gang Violence Prevention Unit, which will deploy state troopers to monitor gang activity and recruitment in the alleged top 10 “high-risk” Suffolk County schools. Huntington High School made the list.

The prevention unit will immediately assign 10 state troopers, one to each of the 10 schools in the six targeted districts which includes Brentwood, Central Islip, Huntington, Longwood, South Country Central and Wyandanch. Cuomo said these districts were chosen as they were identified by local law enforcement as having the highest concentration of gang violence and vulnerability to recruitment efforts.

In addition, the prevention unit will coordinate with the Suffolk County Police Department to launch an “Educate the Educators” program, aimed at helping teachers and faculty recognize early warning signs of gang involvement.

“Our number one job in government is to keep all New Yorkers, and especially our children, safe,” Cuomo said in a statement. “By partnering with our schools, we will be better prepared to stop gang activity before it starts and end this heinous cycle of violence. This is just one step in our ongoing efforts to eradicate the threat of MS-13 and ensure that every student remains on a path to a bright future.”

Huntington Superintendent James W. Polansky said he was “deeply disappointed” by the manner in which the governor presented the initiative. Polansky made clear to residents it was not a coordinated effort with the district in a letter sent to the community dated Sept. 14.

“Much of our dismay stems from the fact that at no point were we approached,” Polansky said in a statement. “At no point did any state official or otherwise reach out and ask what we need or don’t need. At no point did anyone request a visit or invite a conversation of any sort. At no point have we received even fragments of information about this proposal.”

Upon questioning state officials about Cuomo’s proposed plan, Polansky said the district received a thorough apology and admission that the “ball was dropped.”

The superintendent stated in his Sept. 14 letter that Cuomo had mischaracterized the Huntington school district and that his words, “frankly, offend all members of the school community.”

“In fact, numerous students were the first to point this out first thing in the morning,” Polansky wrote. “Unfortunately, we continue to witness education and politics rarely prove to be a productive combination.”

As of Sept. 19, a state trooper has not been assigned to Huntington High School as part of the prevention unit, according to school spokesman Jim Hoops. The district does have a school resource officer assigned from Suffolk County police since 2004 to monitor issues that arise, which is shared with the South Huntington school district.

Republicans Phil Boyle and Larry Zacarese and Democrat Dan Caroleo are running for Suffolk County sheriff. Photos from left, from Phil Boyle, Larry Zacarese and Suffolk Democratic Chairman Richard Schaffer

Three candidates are currently in the race to become Suffolk County sheriff this November. State Sen. Phil Boyle (R-East Islip), career law enforcer Larry Zacarese (R), Boyle’s Republican primary challenger, and retired New York City police officer Dan Caroleo (D) are each hoping to inherit the position held for 12 years by Vincent DeMarco (R), who announced in May his decision not to seek a fourth term. He declined to comment on his decision.

Boyle, 55, of Bay Shore, who was elected to the New York Senate in November 2012 after serving 16 years as a state assemblyman, was endorsed for sheriff by the Suffolk Conservative Party in March and was backed by both the Republican and Independent parties soon after.

If elected, Boyle, a stepfather of two, said he wants to run the sheriff’s office in the most cost-effective manner possible, promote people based on merit rather than politics and halt the rise of drug overdoses and gang violence. He recently co-sponsored a bill to ban the sale of machetes to minors, the weapon of choice for MS-13 gang members.

The senator, who chaired and helped create the state Senate’s Joint Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction in 2013 to stamp out the growing drug problem, pointed to his active involvement pushing law enforcement issues in Albany as significant qualifiers.

Under the task force, 18 hearings were held across the state, which led to 11 prevention, treatment and enforcement measures passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

When it comes to immigration issues, Boyle said he disagrees with how DeMarco has run the jail.

“I work closely with federal immigration agents to make sure any individuals housed in the Suffolk County jail that agents may want to interact with due to immigration status have access to that,” Boyle said. “DeMarco, for a while, made the jail a sanctuary jail, in my opinion, and I’m definitely not going to allow that to happen.”

Zacarese, 43, of Kings Park, who is currently the assistant chief of  the Stony Brook University police, said he’s looking forward to the primary. Zacarese and his “army of volunteers” are currently gathering 2,000 signatures in order to run. Confident he’s not just another choice, but the better choice, for the top law enforcement job, Zacarese outlined his 25-year law enforcement career.

He started as a Holbrook volunteer fireman at 17, went to paramedic school, then began to work in the NYPD as a patrol officer, canine handler and tactical paramedic. He became a sergeant, then deputy chief fire instructor at the Suffolk County Fire Academy and an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Stony Brook University.

For four years, while working at Stony Brook by day, Zacarese pursued his shelved passion, attending law school by night. He is currently admitted to practice law in the state.

“My wife tells me I’m the biggest underachiever she knows,” the father of four said, laughing. “I’ve worked really hard rounding out all of the areas that are pertinent to the office of sheriff, which is much more than just the person who oversees the correctional facilities.”

He said, if elected, his main priority is the opioid crisis.

“We really need to take a better look at the prevention and collaboration between addiction programs and not-for-profits, as well as how we can influence treatment while people are being incarcerated,” he said. “It’s about [providing] help while they’re in jail so when they return to their communities, they have started on the path to recovery.”

Suffolk County Democratic Committee Chairman Richard Schaffer, campaign manager for Caroleo, 62, of North Babylon, who was unavailable for comment, said the former New York City police officer, director of security at the North Babylon School District and current member of the district’s school board has, “a wealth of experience, he’s well-rounded and I think he can work cooperatively with, and continue, what County Executive Steve Bellone (D), Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini, and DeMarco have laid out — making sure we continue to drive down jail population.”

According to Schaffer, “Caroleo feels he has a great deal of public safety experience” that he could bring to the sheriff’s department.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini testifies before the U.S. Senate committee May 24. Image from Department of Homeland Security website

By Kevin Redding

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini took his crusade against MS-13 gangs to Capitol Hill this morning, calling on the federal government to further join in the fight.

Sini testified May 24 before the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in Washington D.C. regarding the impact of MS-13 gang activity on local communities in a hearing entitled “Border Insecurity: The Rise of MS-13 and Other Transnational Criminal Organizations.”

Despite historic reductions in crimes in Suffolk County since last year, Sini said, there’s been an increase in gang violence connected to MS-13.

According to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), chairman of the committee, the mission of the hearing was “to highlight these problems within our government agency, within our government laws and procedures, to make the public aware [and] lay out a reality so we can actually enact public policy to combat it and keep this homeland safe.”

Suffolk County has gained national attention after high profile murder investigations connected to the gang and a visit from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) to speak on the topic earlier in May.

Sini, speaking alongside Det. Scott Conley of the Chelsea Police Gang Unit in Massachusetts and Chief J. Thomas Manger of Montgomery County Police in Maryland, outlined ways in which the federal government could assist local governments and better stamp out the escalation of gang activity. Some of Sini’s notable quotes from the testimony are below:

  • More federal prosecutors should be provided to arraign RICO cases, designed to combat organized crime in the United States, against Ms-13 gang members. “If the Suffolk County Police department could launch a pilot program in collaboration with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office whereby every MS-13 arrest could be screened for possible federal prosecution — taking dangerous individuals off our streets, and generate incentives for defendants who cooperate with law enforcement.”
  • Intelligence sharing among law enforcement agencies throughout the country should be improved. “A singular database with information relating to identified MS-13 gang members would encourage multi-jurisdictional operations and allow departments to be more proactive in targeting MS-13 gang members in our communities.”
  • Additional funding for community-based gang prevention and intervention programs tied directly to the number of unaccompanied children from other countries, who are most susceptible to gang recruitment, in local communities.
  • Improvements should be made to the unaccompanied children program, including increased screening and monitoring of sponsors and post-placement services.

Since January 2016, Sini explained to committee members Johnson and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), out of the 45 homicides in Suffolk County, 17 of those are believed to be linked to MS-13 gangs and approximately 400 identified MS-13 gang members are active in the county.

The commissioner has rolled out aggressive gang eradication strategies within the police department since becoming commissioner in 2016 to target particular communities where the gang is most active, like Brentwood, and stamp out the activities of its members. The strategy has led to 200 MS-13 arrests, Sini said.

In March, in collaboration with the FBI’s Long Island Safe Streets Task Force, the department arrested four gang members tied to the killings of Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, Brentwood High School students beaten to death for “disrespecting the gang.” But, Sini said, it’s not enough.

“We recognize that our targeted enforcement and enhanced patrols will not alone lead to the eradication of gangs from our neighborhoods — MS-13 preys on our most vulnerable and if we do not provide the structure for these young people, MS-13 will,” Sini said.

The commissioner said the gang members in Suffolk County are predominantly male, between the ages 16 and 29, many of whom hold wage-paying jobs, differentiating themselves from other gangs.

“MS-13 often engages in violence for the sake of violence to increase notoriety of the gang and cause communities to fear the gang and its members,” Sini said.

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