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Russell: Cop was terminated ‘solely for job performance’

07/12/2016 7:35 PM |

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Two members of the Southold Town Board denied allegations recently made by a former Southold Town police officer who claims he was terminated in May for political reasons.

At Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, Supervisor Scott Russell said former police officer Garrett Lake was fired “solely for job performance” and said he was eager for a lawsuit filed by Mr. Lake against the town to be concluded in public.

“I can’t wait until that happens so the public would understand what we’ve done and recognize that the decision we made was the right decision,” Mr. Russell said.

Mr. Lake, a rookie cop with the town’s police department, was terminated in a unanimous decision of the Town Board following an executive session May 19 — four days before his probationary period was set to end. One month later, Mr. Lake filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the town.

In the suit, Mr. Lake alleged that his arrest of Steven Romeo in connection with a deadly limo accident last summer, as well as the arrest of Jamesport fire chief David McKillop in an unrelated alleged drunk driving incident caused the fire department and the vice-chairman of the town’s Republican Party to pressure the Town Board to end his employment.

Mr. Russell rejected Mr. Lake’s allegation that meddling by a local fire department over a chief’s drunken driving arrest caused his termination.

“I have no idea where that came from,” Mr. Russell said. “I never discussed it with anybody. No one’s ever discussed it with me. That’s ridiculous.”

Mr. Lake’s termination had come two weeks after he was awarded a “Top DWI Cop” award, which goes to officers who make the most arrests of drunken drivers. The county’s award was based solely on the number of arrests — not convictions — made by officers in each Suffolk County police department.

That award was mentioned in Mr. Lake’s suit as an example of his excellent policing, and was brought up by Cutchogue resident Nancy Sawastynowicz as she condemned board members for their decision to fire him.

“How do you, the Town Board, reward him? By firing him,” she said.

“I am disgusted by the actions of this Town Board,” she continued. “I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”

But Mr. Russell immediately pushed back against the criticism, saying “there are many facets to being a police officer, more than just arrests for DWI.”

Councilman James Dinizio also defended the decision, saying the allegations were not the facts.

“What she [Ms. Sawastynowicz] describes isn’t what we lived through,” Mr. Dinizio said to a reporter after the meeting.

In responding to Ms. Sawastynowicz, Mr. Russell also stated that Mr. Lake had been previously warned of problems with his performance.

“He was made aware of the issues,” Mr. Russell said. “He was asked to make corrective actions. He didn’t.”

After the outburst, Cutchogue resident Benja Schwartz asked the board whether it was wise to make such statements in public, noting the board’s policy not to discuss pending lawsuits in public.

“He disclosed it publicly,” Mr. Russell replied. “He made it fair game and I’m limiting my comments.”

The supervisor declined to comment further after the meeting.

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Photo: Supervisor Scott Russell addressing Cutchogue resident Nancy Sawastynowicz at Tuesday’s Town Board meeting. (Credit: Paul Squire)

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