Southold police sergeant files suit over delayed disciplinary action following 2020 retirement party

Southold police sergeant Steven Witzke, who was suspended without pay after his involvement in a May 2020 retirement party that violated COVID-19 safety protocols, filed a petition in Suffolk County Supreme Court earlier this month claiming Southold Town officials took too long to discipline him.

Sgt. Witzke and his attorney, Frederick Richman, are arguing the Town Board dealt with the situation in an “untimely” manner, therefore the disciplinary charges against him should be dismissed and his deducted pay and benefits should be restored.

“The Southold Town Police Department had all of the necessary information readily available to it to bring disciplinary charges against me within days of May 29, 2020,” Sgt. Witzke stated in his petition. “There is no excuse for the Town failing to abide by the relevant statutes and instituting any disciplinary charges in a timely manner.”

Sgt. Witzke, who has been a police officer in Southold since 2008, is one of five town employees who faced disciplinary action after a lengthy investigation into the police department’s response to community complaints about a May 2020 retirement party for Sgt. Steven Zuhoski at Zuhoski Farm in Cutchogue that violated the strict social distancing protocols in place at the time.

In his court petition, Sgt. Witzke said there were numerous calls coming into police headquarters that night complaining about the party and fireworks display. He admitted in the documents it was “an error of judgement” to not notify his supervisors or dispatch a patrol car to respond to the complaints.

After an internal investigation conducted by police chief Martin Flatley, his review of the calls and recommendation for disciplinary action against Stg. Witzke was presented to the Town Attorney days after the event, court documents state. In June 2020, the Town Board hired outside attorney Justin Block to investigate the department’s response to the party.

Due to it being an active court action against the Town of Southold, Mr. Flatley declined to comment on Sgt. Witzke’s petition.

Sgt. Witzke said he was interviewed by Mr. Block in December 2020, but wasn’t served with disciplinary charges until more than two years later in August 2022. On April 11, 2023, he was suspended without prior notice for 30 days without pay, he said in his petition.

Sgt. Witzke attended three hearings in last summer and at their conclusion in November, Town-appointed hearing officer Robert Draffin reduced Sgt. Witzke’s suspension from 30 days without pay to 20, but “failed to dismiss the charges as being filed beyond the statutory time frames,” the petition states.

He added he has not heard from Southold Town directly on whether or not they have accepted or rejected Mr. Draffin’s decision, but based on “information and belief,” he stated the Town Board did accept the decision. He said he received 10 days backpay in December.

Sgt. Witzke repeatedly claims in his petition that according to Town Law Section 155, disciplinary charges must be instituted within 60 days of an offense and point to Civil Service Law Section 75 which states any penalties must be meted out in an 18-month timeframe.

“Sgt. Witzke has an unblemished disciplinary record in his time with the department, and enforcing discipline years after the fact benefits the community in no significant way,” Mr. Richman said in his memorandum in support of Sgt. Witzke. “This only does harm, shocks one’s sense of fairness, and displays disloyalty to officers who have served the community for several years.”

Sgt. Witzke is due back in Riverhead court on Tuesday, April 30.