At least six Southold Town Police Department employees are being questioned in an ongoing probe of the department’s response to community complaints about a sergeant’s retirement party last May, according to billing records filed with the town.
As of Feb. 23, a police sergeant, one police officer and two dispatchers had been deposed by outside counsel hired by the Town Board to conduct the investigation. Two more officers were scheduled to be deposed, according to the invoice filed by attorney Justin Block of the firm Messina, Pirillo and Hill.
In a split vote last June, the board hired Mr. Block, who at the time was working for a different firm, to lead the investigation. Mr. Block is a past president of the Suffolk County Bar Association.
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 Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s orders limiting gatherings to just 10 individuals in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Four town residents later told The Suffolk Times that they had contacted police about the party. Their calls were verified through cellphone call histories, though no official police report was ever generated by the police department. Witnesses interviewed by a reporter at the time 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.
Mr. Block was hired after a preliminary investigation into the response by town Police Chief Martin Flatley was deemed insufficient by Supervisor Scott Russell and other board members.
Chief Flatley wrote this week, in response to a set of emailed questions, that he has not been actively involved in the investigation and that he is not satisfied with the pace of Mr. Block’s inquiry, which was authorized nearly 11 months ago.
“I submitted my preliminary investigation into this complaint on June 5, 2020, along with my recommendations for discipline on certain department members,” the chief said in an email. He said no department members have yet been disciplined in connection with the incident.
Mr. Russell agreed it’s frustrating but said he has no similar investigation to compare it to and doesn’t know what an appropriate timeline would be.
“I think we all want it complete so we can take what actions may be necessary and move on from this,” Mr. Russell said.
Accounting records show Chief Flatley took part in a three-and-a-half hour meeting with Mr. Block and town attorney Bill Duffy in the early stages of the investigation on Sept. 11. He also forwarded recordings of the calls placed with police on the night of the party for Mr. Block to review. In the eight months since, invoices filed by Mr. Block show his primary point of contact with the town has been Mr. Duffy, who did not respond this week to the same series of questions that were emailed to the police chief and town supervisor.
As of April 6, the town had spent more than $8,400 on the investigation, records show. Just under $1,600 relates to emails, phone calls and a meeting with Mr. Duffy.
The invoices also show Mr. Block received a phone call from an investigator with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office on Oct. 22, two days after The Suffolk Times first reported the DA’s office had launched its own investigation into the incident.
Among those deposed or scheduled to be questioned in Mr. Block’s investigation are Sgt. Steven Witzke, officers John Hinton, Daniel Mackey and Daniel Lillis and dispatchers Bryan Weingart and Donna Lane.
Mr. Block did not respond to a request for comment this week and previously told The Suffolk Times he would not comment on the investigation.
Chief Flatley said he is unaware of any timeline to complete the investigation.