Guest Column: DA should handle police retirement party investigation

As The Suffolk Times has reported, “A dozen Orient Fire Department members or associates were exposed to COVID-19 at the district’s budget hearing Tuesday, the district confirmed in an email Friday afternoon. As a result, the firehouse is closed with the exception of emergency calls ….” More recently, the Suffolk Times reported that “30 guests at a North Fork Country Club wedding have tested positive for COVID-19.” And as extensively reported, there was a Sweet 16 party with no masks and no distancing. The county imposed a fine of thousands of dollars. And the authorities did contact tracing and found that many people who attended the Sweet 16 party got COVID.

Hopefully, these superspreader events will not lead to hundreds of new cases and more needless deaths.

These stories require us to ask about the Southold Town Board’s so-called “independent investigation” of the May “retirement party” where more than 50 police officers, families and friends celebrated “cheek to cheek” without any masks or social distancing. As reported many times, citizen complaints were made, and the police did nothing — other than attend the party and risk their health and that of the community they serve. They then suggested everything was fine because it was a “private” party, a “family” party, “they were off duty” or the executive orders are simply “guidelines” and not legally binding, etc. 

Town Supervisor Russell obviously did not expect the outcry the retirement party immediately drew from the community. He gushed with praise for the retiring officer. “From my perspective, my deep gratitude for someone who went to work every day despite the risk of exposure to COVID-19 doesn’t waiver.” In other words, by day, the officer was a self-sacrificing public servant and then, by night, he and his family and friends engaged in illegal activities risking the lives of the entire community. Make sense? Welcome to America in 2020.

As a result of the public outcry about the retirement party, and after the police chief wrote a secret misleading report on the incident, an “independent investigation” was announced by the Town Board on June 30. That’s four months ago. From the thousands of lawyers in Suffolk County, the board chose a lawyer with no experience doing investigations, but who works for a firm that just concluded a major case on their behalf. As reported, he has thus far submitted to the town an invoice for services rendered which says he has billed for maybe one hour’s work. Town attorney Duffy said the lawyer-investigator would interview people and review documents to determine, among other things, whether the police were made aware of the party while it was going on.

But the violations of the law, and the multiple citizen complaints made to the police department while the partygoers were brazenly setting off fireworks, trumpeting their arrogance, have been well-established since the event happened months ago. The police chief’s secret report was kept secret because he simply couldn’t find a way of excusing what we all knew happened. Hence, the board needed to find someone, a lawyer they knew and trusted, to spin the facts. He has understandably encountered the same obstacle: the truth.

The recently reported viral spread caused by illegal Sweet 16 and other parties raise the question of what has been done to discover the effects of the police retirement party, with many more people. It has never been reported that the town or the “independent” investigator has obtained information on how many people got infected at the police party, and who they in turn infected. Did the investigator get a list of the names of the attendees? Surely the hosts of the party know who they invited. Is this “independent” investigator investigating the spread issue? If he’s not, who is?

Our well-paid civil servants certainly deserve our thanks for doing a hard job well in most cases. But we, the citizens and voters, never conferred on them special privileges. The district attorney should immediately take over the investigation. The one ordered by the town is a sham and the DA should not defer to it.

A final point: Executive orders are issued pursuant to a statute — the New York Executive Law — and have the full force and effect of law, no different from the thousands of legally enforceable rules and regulations the governor and the state’s executive departments are authorized to issue. Ask someone if and when there is a mask requirement for an indoor meeting or gathering. Or how many people are you are allowed to have visit in your home. Or how many tickets have been given out for violations. The board should be educating the community on the rules. Whatever steps the board has taken to make sure citizens are in no doubt about some simple rules have been a complete fiasco. And now we are told that we are entering the worst period of the pandemic. 

When daily cases were tens of thousands lower, the prediction that we will soon see a hundred thousand new cases per day seemed fantastical. And yet here we are. The board should put a flier in every mailbox, setting forth the rules in simple terms, and it should hold weekly townwide Zoom meetings to remind us of the rules and keep us totally informed about new cases, problems, initiatives, where and when one can get the vaccine when it becomes available, etc. If the board isn’t up to it, they should resign and we should elect some people with experience in health care, maybe even a real doctor. This situation is not going to clarify for quite some time. Uncertainty breeds fear. People are scared and we need real leadership.

The author is a resident of Orient.