Southold Town hiring independent investigator to examine police response to cop’s party

Unsatisfied with an internal investigation, the Southold Town Board plans to hire an independent investigator to examine its police department’s response to community complaints about an officer’s retirement party held last month in violation of an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo banning mass gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the town attorney’s office confirmed Wednesday.

The board directed town attorney Bill Duffy to retain an outside firm to investigate after it met in an executive session Tuesday evening to review a summary of a preliminary report prepared by Police Chief Martin Flatley.

“The Town Board wants the residents of Southold to know that we are taking the allegations very seriously and are determined to get to the bottom of what happened,” Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said in a statement. “These allegations are very troubling. The public wants answers — and they deserve answers.”

Chief Flatley had submitted a report to the town attorney’s office last Thursday detailing the results of his inquiry into the event, which town residents said led to more than a half-dozen complaints that the chief said were not recorded in the police blotter. At the Town Board’s request last week, the chief said he would review recordings from the department call system to see if residents did notify police and how those calls were handled.

That initial report will not be released to the public, town officials said.

“Unfortunately we are not in a position to release any reports yet,” Mr. Duffy wrote in an email prior to Tuesday’s meeting. “The chief’s report was preliminary, and therefore is ‘inter-agency or intra-agency, materials that are not … final agency policies or determinations’ under section 87-2(g) of the Freedom of Information Law.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Russell said the decision to launch an independent investigation is about restoring public trust.

“It is of paramount importance that the people of the Town of Southold are able to maintain trust and confidence in their local police department and local government,” Mr. Russell said. “As a board we decided that the best way to maintain that trust and confidence was to retain an independent investigator.”

The supervisor said that because the matter involves personnel, Tuesday’s meeting had to be held in executive session. He said board members did not review the actual report, since it could be used in disciplinary hearings, but rather were given a summary prepared by Mr. Duffy.

Mr. Russell said the Town Board has been advised by legal counsel to refrain from further comment on the situation until after the investigation is complete.

The May 29 retirement party was for Sgt. Steven Zuhoski, who worked his final shift that evening after nearly 24 years with the department. Photos of the event, most of which were removed from social media the following day, showed dozens of partygoers present at Sgt. Zuhoski’s Cutchogue tree farm despite the governor’s orders limiting gatherings to just 10 individuals. 

Four town residents later told the paper that they contacted police about the party, calls that were verified through cellphone call histories, though no report was generated by the police department. Witnesses interviewed by a reporter estimated that upwards of 150 people attended the event, which included bagpipers and a fireworks show. One photo viewed by The Suffolk Times showed a patrol car at the party.

Reports of the event and the department’s apparent lack of response generated complaints to town officials.

The party also drew sharp criticism on social media and in letters to the newspaper from town residents demanding accountability from police. Many others defended the party, citing property rights and Mr. Zuhoski’s public service.

Town Board member Sarah Nappa invited Chief Flatley to attend last week’s work session to address community concerns. She also requested that officers who attended the party be tested for COVID-19. On Tuesday, she said in a statement that the town will not pursue that option.

“Due to legal reasons, the town attorney and Supervisor Russell have decided not to pursue [COVID-19] testing for the town employees that attended the retirement party,” she said.