Town Board votes on disciplinary action for three officers involved in COVID-era retirement party

With a vote to discipline two members of the Southold Town Police Department, the three-and-a-half-year retirement party saga appears to have reached its conclusion.

During its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday evening, the Southold Town Board voted 5-1 to discipline Sgt. Steven Witzke and officer Daniel Mackey, who were listed only by their employee numbers, for their role in the COVID-19-era retirement party which sparked community uproar. The Suffolk Times identified the officers through a search of Southold Town records. The years-long debacle included multiple investigations, including a two-year-long investigation by outside attorney Justin Block, who was hired by the Town Board, and the temporary suspension of Southold Town Police Chief Martin Flatley.

The board examined the findings of a hearing officer appointed under the procedures of civil service law and found Mr. Witzke “failed to receive, record and service immediately all complaints and request for service … engaged in conduct which brought discredit upon the Department … engaged in neglect or dereliction in the performance of official duties … engaged in an act of delinquency seriously affecting a member’s general character or fitness for office … demonstrated incompetence to perform an official duty” and “engaged in conduct unbecoming an officer.” Mr. Witzke, who previously served a 30-day unpaid suspension, will have his suspension reduced to 20 days and receive 10 days back pay.

Mr. Mackey will be suspended two days without pay, a sentence which will be administered within 30 days at the discretion of Mr. Flatley. Among other findings, the board concluded he “failed to remain on his duty post and left his post without the approval of the supervising officer” and “failed to obey all laws and ordinances which he was obliged to enforce.”

“I’m glad that this is finally resolved, it should not have taken this long,” Councilmember Sarah Nappa said in an email Tuesday evening. “I was opposed to hiring Justin Block from the beginning, as I knew he was a political choice. We shouldn’t be choosing politics over the community and that was part of the transparency that I was working to achieve. Covid lockdown was a trying time for everyone in our community, however my call for accountability regarding this incident strengthens our police force and in turn serves our community better.”

Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Flatley declined to comment on the hearing officer’s findings and the Town Board’s disciplinary actions, as the depositions may not yet be final as the Police Benevolent Association has 30 days to appeal the litigation. The Suffolk Times could not immediately reach Southold Town Police Benevolent Association President Roman Wilinski for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Following a traditional walkout ceremony on May 29, 2020, upwards of 150 guests attended a retirement party for Sgt. Steven Zuhoski at his tree farm on Oregon Road in Cutchogue in violation of then Governor Andrew Cuomo’s order which limited gatherings to just 10 individuals during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The public decried the police department’s violation of the orders and multiple residents presented call histories to The Suffolk Times indicating they reached out to the department to complain of the party, which boasted fireworks and a DJ.

In 2020, the board retained outside attorney Mr. Block, a past president of the Suffolk County Bar Association, to conduct an investigation after it deemed a preliminary investigation into the department’s response by Mr. Flatley insufficient. At the time, councilmember Sarah Nappa opposed Mr. Block’s hiring and wished to appoint another investigator, citing concerns over Mr. Block’s previous affiliation with the board. In hindsight, Mr. Russell said he regrets hiring Mr. Block, as the board did not receive his findings until August of 2022.

“We picked an investigator that was the wrong choice,” he said. “He took almost two years, it was a disservice to the Town Board, to the public and the police. We made the wrong choice; we should have gone with Sarah’s choice.”

Mr. Russell was the sole dissenting vote in the decision to reprimand Mr. Witzke and Mr. Mackey. He explained the board members agreed to not read Block’s report while the hearing officer was still conducting their findings. Now that both are available, Mr. Russell felt the board should have read through both before voting to accept, deny or modify the hearing officer’s recommended punishments.

“I did not vote against suspension, I voted against making a decision so quickly,” he explained. “We just got the [hearing officer’s] recommendation a week ago … I believe we had an obligation to read [Block’s report] in its entirety.”

On Tuesday, the board also unanimously voted to reject the hearing officer’s recommendation to inscribe a letter of reprimand in the personnel file for up to 18 months for a third officer, John Hinton.