Government

Town Board, labor counsel weighing disciplinary action following ‘troubling’ report on police response to retirement party complaints

The Southold Town Board met with labor counsel Tuesday to discuss possible disciplinary action after receiving a “very troubling” report from the attorney hired to investigate the town police department’s response to community complaints about a retirement party for one of its officers, Supervisor Scott Russell said.

Town officials declined to discuss who might face discipline and suggested it’s possible no punishment will be levied.

“We’ve instructed our labor counsel to take any and all necessary steps to put a process in place so that we can evaluate whether disciplinary action is needed or not,” the supervisor told an East Marion resident who asked during Tuesday’s Town Board meeting why it took two years for the town to receive the report and why information has not been shared with the public.

The supervisor said he “understands the disappointment” in the investigation taking two years.

“I’m disappointed and I believe the entire Town Board is disappointed — even beyond disappointed,” Mr. Russell said.

Board members stressed that the town will now move swiftly to bring the matter to a close.

“We got the report today and we took action today,” Councilwoman Jill Doherty said of the two executive sessions held Tuesday, one to meet with the investigator and the other to discuss the findings with labor counsel. “We hope to have something in the next few weeks. But we don’t know how long that’s gonna take. And there’s really no definitive answer we can give you except that we have taken this very seriously.”

Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said she voted against hiring attorney Justin Block to conduct the investigation because she “had concerns back then.”

“Obviously now we can see that there were reasons for that, [since] it has taken this long,” she said. “I’ve been completely disgusted and outraged at the length of time that this investigation has taken.”

Acting town attorney John Burke said the Town Board, which serves as a six-member board of commissioners for the police department, is limited in what it can say about the findings and any action that may be taken. He added that the investigator’s findings cannot be released to the public while it remains an “active investigation that has been referred to labor counsel.”

“If labor counsel determines that there are disciplinary actions to be taken, then it will come back to the board and they would review whether or not to authorize those disciplinary actions,” Mr. Burke said.

Mr. Block, a past president of the Suffolk County Bar Association, was hired as an independent investigator in a split vote of the Town Board in June 2020. The retirement party, held just weeks earlier on May 29, 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 order limiting gatherings to just 10 individuals during the early months of the 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 Mr. Russell and other board members. The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office had also launched an investigation, records show.

Invoices filed by Mr. Block and posted to the town’s website show the town has paid about $9,500 for work performed on the investigation through last October. The most recent invoice posted to the site was paid in February 2022, records show.

A police sergeant, three police officers and two dispatchers were among those interviewed during the investigation, according to the invoices.

Police officer Richard Buoniauto, the Southold Town Police Benevolent Association president, declined to comment Tuesday on the investigation and the possibility of disciplinary actions against members of the department.

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