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Quality of Life on Steamboat, Fear and Frustration

A group of approximately 60 frustrated residents from the Steamboat Road area attended a public safety meeting in the Village of Great Neck in response to an invitation by Mayor Ralph Kreitzman and Trustee Mark Birnbaum, the village’s public safety commissioner. Captain Sean McCarthy, deputy commanding officer from the 6th Precinct, listened to a stream of complaints about groups of “menacing” men who congregate outside, openly drinking beer, publicly urinating, making unwelcome noises if women walk by, littering, playing loud radios, smashing bottles, and generally making life miserable for surrounding residents. The residents are convinced that there is drug dealing in the area. As a result, parents are loath to let their kids play outside or send them to the corner deli to pick up a quart of milk because parents are worried about what they may see and hear. One mother said, “Do we have to wait until there is a drive-by shooting to do something?”

The meeting which lasted for three hours gave the residents a chance to vent and to compare notes with each other, gave Captain McCarthy a chance to discuss things the police are doing and can do to improve the situation and village officials a chance to ask for the residents to help them document and compile evidence that would allow village justices to issue warrants allowing code inspectors to enter houses to determine safety violations and prove multifamily living arrangements. Mayor Kreitzman said, “I called this meeting to let you know that we, too, are frustrated about the situation on Steamboat and we need your help to combat it.”

Police Response

Captain McCarthy said to the group, “Dealing with the problems you have raised will be a process, not an event… I am very impressed with the turnout tonight…communication between the residents and the police is important.”

While the captain could not discuss ongoing investigations, he did note that there have been four arrests in the area since May (one which was drug related) and 16 arrests since the beginning of the year. From May 1 to the present, there have been 220 traffic tickets written in the Village of Great Neck alone. He warned that additional attention from the police could mean that residents might find themselves with more traffic tickets. Some residents countered that it would be worth it, if there were higher police visibility in the area and some noted that the men who loiter on the street do not own autos, most ride bicycles.

Captain McCarthy said that more patrol cars at the beginning of the summer could set the tone of stricter police attention. He gave out his email address and urged residents to send him photos and any tips regarding illegal acts so that the police could target their resources better.

He emphasized that police are restrained from searches and seizures based on ethnic or racial profiling and said, “You don’t really want to live in a country where police don’t operate under those limits…we will do the best we can for you, under the law.” He went on to add, “Absent criminology, we don’t ask about immigration status.”

Village Response

One resident called the multifamily, illegal housing to be the “root of the problem.” Mayor Kreitzman confirmed that none of the houses in the area are permitted under village law to house multiple families or numbers of unrelated men. Further, the village has no power to enter and inspect a house unless its code enforcement officers have a search warrant from a village justice. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects the rights of individuals to be secure and free from unreasonable searches.

The mayor said, “There is something that you can do to help us obtain warrants legally. If you give us solid information and are willing to sign an affidavit to that effect, we can offer that as evidence to a village justice.” A number of residents affirmed that they would be willing to provide such information. Rabbi Aryeh Spero, who has spearheaded various efforts to deal with quality of life issues in the area, rose to state that he was not afraid to go on the record on the matter and urged other residents not to become disheartened.

If the village can prove that a single-family home has turned into “multihousing,” they can forward such information to Nassau County’s board of assessors, which could result in landlord’s taxes to take a leap upward because a property would be declared “commercial.” The mayor clarified that landlords have an arduous time evicting tenants, and the process can take up to six to nine months.

The village can and does issue summonses for unsafe and unsightly conditions, such as untended lots with high weeds, piles of tires and newspapers, abandoned cars and unreasonable noises during late hours at night or early hours in the morning or trucks idling their motors for more than 10 minutes. But remedying offending problems are often not swift enough to suit either the village or the nearby residents.

The head of transportation and security for the Great Neck School District, Dominick Cappelletti was present. He stated that there are 10 bus stops that service 60 primary school children on Steamboat Road. He asked residents to call him, if the locations of the stops are problematic; however, he added that buses must stop at corners and not at midblock. After the meeting, Mr. Cappelletti informed the Record by email that he has notified all bus drivers to be vigilant when picking up and dropping off students along that route.

Questions were raised about whether the village could establish its own police department as enjoyed by other villages. Trustee Birnbaum said that the village had explored that possibility to no avail. He said that when the Nassau County Charter was written in 1934, villages had an opportunity to “opt in or out” of creating their own police departments. The Village of Great Neck had opted out at the time. He said, “The law is interpreted that we gave up any rights to have our own police department long ago.”

Other Approaches?

Another idea floated was to reach out to Town of North Hempstead Councilwoman Kitty Poons, who founded the Great Neck Hispanic Community, to ask her to intervene and open a dialogue with the people who are living in crowded and unsafe conditions and perhaps mediate toward better community relationships.

The Record spoke with Ms. Poons after the meeting and learned that she had been informed about the proceedings. Ms. Poons said that she has driven down Steamboat Road several times since the meeting and on Sunday evening spoke with a small group of young men in their early 20s. They told her that it gets hot and stuffy in the houses where they live and that they have nowhere to go at night. They feel that they are being harassed. Ms. Poons said that some of the behaviors that residents dislike might be modified with some community outreach and education. She added, “The truth is that Great Neck has no place for the poor, no low income housing…I’m not just talking about Hispanics. There’s no place for the poor who are black and white either and yet, they provide low-cost labor… I am willing to work to see what can be done.”