COVID-19

Chief confirms investigation into handling of cop’s retirement party; councilwoman says officers felt ‘untouchable, privileged’

Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley has launched an internal investigation into why his department failed to document community complaints over a loud retirement party in Cutchogue for one of its officers during a public health crisis and a statewide ban on mass gatherings.

While town residents reported more than a half-dozen phone calls notifying police of Friday evening’s party for retiring Sgt. Steven Zuhoski, the chief has said no report was ever generated in the blotter. Mr. Flatley also said it’s not clear whether a patrol car ever responded to the event, though a neighbor told The Suffolk Times she saw a police vehicle on site as she passed by the Oregon Road farm. A photograph that was viewed by The Suffolk Times, but has since been deleted from Facebook, backs that claim.

Southold Town Board members said Tuesday that they would like to see some type of an investigation into the public complaints and how the department responded.

“That is already in place,” Chief Flatley told the board Tuesday morning, while attending its work session at the request of Councilwoman Sarah Nappa. The chief said department protocol triggered the internal investigation and that he expects to present the board with more facts before the end of the week.

The chief did not indicate what the investigation would entail outside of listening to calls from residents and looking into how the department handled those calls.

A distant photo of the retirement party, published with permission from a local resident who drove past the event Friday evening.

The roughly 50-minute discussion between Mr. Flatley and the board, which included both the chief and Ms. Nappa reading prepared statements, was his first time speaking publicly about his department’s response that evening.

Mr. Flatley, who described the event as a family party for a member of the department and not a police function, said he has not yet had the opportunity to review recordings from the department’s call system, so he stopped short of offering more specifics in his discussion with the board. In his prepared statement, he said it does appear from what the public has stated that members of his department violated Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order limiting gatherings to 10 people or less.

“It appears that these accounts are true, but are certainly not condoned by our department,” he said in his statement. “If members of this department were present in violation of this order I’m disappointed in their lapse in judgement and this will be addressed with all members of the department.”

Ms. Nappa offered a sharp criticism of both the party that was held and the department’s apparent response, saying the event was a violation of public trust and the lack of action from town leadership is a “misuse of authority.”

“Members of our community have missed birthday parties, graduations, weddings, births, funerals,” Ms. Nappa read. “Except for a select group who felt they are above the law because they are the law, untouchable, privileged. No one is above the law.”

Ms. Nappa, the board’s lone Democrat, motioned for every town employee who attended the party be tested for COVID-19 and said, due to the lack of masks and social distancing on display at the party, they should be under quarantine.

Southold Town Police Chief Matin Flatley and Councilwoman Sarah Nappa at Tuesday’s work session. (Credit: Town of Southold)

While Councilman Jim Dinizio and Town Supervisor Scott Russell offered support for testing the employees who were present, they said it was important to first determine who was actually there and to make certain such a mandate would be legal.

Chief Flatley said that department members have received antibody testing, but only members who exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus have received a COVID-19 test.

The board’s other members in attendance Tuesday took more of a wait-and-see approach before criticizing the events of the party, saying they’d prefer to wait for the chief to finish his investigation.

“You can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper,” Councilman Jim Dinizio said. “I certainly understand that. And you can’t believe everything you read on Facebook either.”

Mr. Dinizio said the most pressing issue for him is to see if community members did, in fact, call police that night and how the department handled those potential calls. Mr. DInizio said some of the complaints from the public fall outside the purview of the town and he said he believed the governor’s order lacked teeth.

Three call histories shared with The Suffolk Times Saturday from residents who said they called police Friday to file a complaint about the retirement party. Four community members shared a total of eight call reports with the paper.

Councilwoman and Deputy Town Supervisor Jill Doherty, who began to question Ms. Nappa’s own investigation into Friday’s events before being interrupted by a hand gesture and remarks from Mr. Russell, said “this is one sergant in a small department that may have had a lapse in judgement in having a personal family party.”

“[It has] nothing to do with the town giving permission,” she said.

But Ms. Nappa pushed back, saying the event, hosted on Sgt. Zuhokski’s commercial farm, featured a fireworks show with no approvals and may have required a special events permit.

“If a restaurant opens [right now] or a winery hosts a wedding, it’s a $100,000 fine,” she said.

“Why was this not stopped before it happened,” she later asked. “Why was it not stopped as it was happening?”

While the police blotter released to the local media Monday did not feature any reports of the party or other mass gatherings, it did feature two incidents of police responding to noise complaints. In both cases, neither of which appeared to exceed the 10-person threshold, the host was asked to lower music or keep the noise down.

Mr. Russell said Tuesday’s discussion, because it involved apparent personnel issues, would continue in executive session. The board members did not discuss any specific names during the open session. The meeting was closed to the public due to COVID-19 concerns, but was streamed live on the town’s website.

Both Ms. Nappa and Mr. Russell noted that the board received many letters about the party from town residents. After some discussion, the letters were not read aloud.