Suffolk County Hate Crimes Unit is investigating a rash of graffiti incidents at a handful of parks in the area - including one at Whitman Hollow Park - and while no gang activity is suspected, the offensive nature of some of the markings could lead to felony arrests.
Det. James Mosby, a 20-year veteran of Suffolk County Police Hate Crimes Unit, said Tuesday morning that his unit is seeking the public's help in determining who is responsible for defacing playground equipment and park grounds in Smithtown, Commack, and Huntington over the past few months.
At Whitman Hollow Park, located off Apple Lane, police said that on May 6 swastikas were found etched into the playground set.
Mosby said the doings are likely those of local teens, ones he sees unaffiliated with any organized gangs and perhaps unaware what the symbols truly mean.
"The common trend has indicated that swastikas are, unfortunately, one of the symbols that youths have adapted," Mosby said. "It doesn't specifically connect individuals to being part of a terrorist or hate group. Often times there is ignorance of the symbol, as it's kids looking to mark their territory."
The Cedar Road and Burr Winkle incidents come in the wake of at least four other similar crimes ranging from Commack to Smithtown to Halesite.
In Cedar Road Park in Commack, two incidents in June - one on June 20, and other on June 28 - included swastikas and anti-black grafitti posted on multiple handball courts. At Burr Winkle Park in Commack in mid-May, four swastikas were found written on playground equipment with permanent markers, and two more were found etched into the equipment. Sexually explicit comments were written on the grounds as well.
The presence of the racially-sensitive markings doesn't necessarily make it a hate crime though, Mosby clarified. Intent must be proven for an aggravated harassment felony charge, otherwise misdemeanor graffiti or criminal mischief charges would be more likely.
Despite the string of incidents, Mosby said no evidence of any organization between all of them exist as of yet. Due to the biased nature of the incidents, the Hate Crime Unit is handling the cases.
"Any park, especially where youths hang out after dark, has an attraction for some kids," he said. "We don't believe all kids are vandals, but there are that certain percentage in every community that when given the opportunity, will do certain acts of criminal mischief."
Mosby said patrols have been given instruction to keep an eye out in local parks since the incidents were reported. And surveillance has been periodically set up, though due to the nighttime nature of the incidents, no one has been able to be identified.
Police are offering a cash reward for any information leading to an arrest related to any of the incidents. Individuals can call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-220-TIPS. All calls will be kept confidential.