Review: Addicted cop was allowed to work

Southampton Town Police Department in Hampton Bays. (May

Southampton Town Police Department in Hampton Bays. (May 17, 2012) (Credit: Randee Daddona)

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The Southampton Town Police Department's now-disbanded Street Crime Unit kept shoddy control of drug evidence and allowed an officer addicted to painkillers to remain on the job, even after his wife pleaded with his supervisor to intervene, according to the former police chief as well as documents reviewed by Newsday.

The revelations provide new details in a yearlong review of more than 100 cases by the Suffolk County district attorney's office that already has led to the dismissal of drug convictions against three individuals -- two of whom were released from prison -- and could result in more, according to a person familiar with the case. Two police officers also had been suspended in the case.

The documents show that Police Officer Eric Sickles, a decorated member of the drug-crimes unit, acknowledged that he began taking OxyContin in late 2010 for a back injury and was addicted to oxycodone since at least 2011. He was taking a mixture of other prescription drugs for anxiety, depression and high blood pressure, while conducting investigations and making arrests.

Sickles' wife, Erica, gave a sworn statement in a town investigation, pleading for his boss, Lt. James Kiernan, to act.

"I told him about Eric taking his gun home and falling asleep with it on the table," Sickles' wife wrote.

 

Doctor's note sufficed

Kiernan allowed Sickles to return to active duty, asking only for a doctor's note, according to documents. "I remember thinking it's not right," Erica Sickles said in her statement. "How could a note be enough to go back to work . . . "

Sickles was suspended last year and underwent treatment. He remains under suspension.

Kiernan, who was suspended between May and November, pleaded guilty in October to administrative charges of "incompetency or inefficiency" and "conduct which brings discredit upon the department" in a plea agreement with the town, according to the documents.

He admitted to four of 32 charges he had been facing, including failing to immediately report a prescription drug-addicted officer who was on the drug unit, and giving a false statement to internal affairs investigators, according to a Southampton administrative settlement agreement.

Kiernan lost 73 days of sick, vacation and personal time. He is back on the job as a lieutenant supervising the town's patrol officers.

 

PBA: He was a scapegoat

Kiernan, who had overseen the Street Crime Unit since 2006, declined to comment, said his attorney Ray Perini, who noted Kiernan did not lose rank and said he was hoping to have those records expunged by the town board.

Speaking on behalf of Sickles, Det. Kevin Gwinn, vice president of the Southampton Town Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said town officials are using Sickles "as a scapegoat. All Eric Sickles did was raise his hand and say he needed help."

The documents make clear that the officer's drug addiction was central to the DA's review.

In an April 26 letter to former Southampton Police Chief William Wilson Jr. and the Southampton Town attorney, Tiffany Scarlato, the Suffolk district attorney's office disclosed the nature of its probe.

"This office has received allegations that for some period of time, a Town of Southampton police officer with a known drug problem was permitted to function in active duty," wrote Christopher McPartland, division chief of investigations. The district attorney, he wrote, "is obligated by the United States Constitution and other legal requirements to provide exculpatory evidence and information in its possession to defendants charged with crimes."

 

Convictions tossed out

Because of the district attorney's review, two convicted drug dealers, Mohammed Proctor and Bernard Cooks, were released last year.

Jeltje DeJong, an outside attorney representing Southampton Town in civil cases stemming from the issue, said town police officers in each of the cases "acted in accordance with the law." She called it "unfortunate that the DA vacated those decisions." Nevertheless, she said, "In each case, we believe the jury will find in favor of the police and the town."

Robert Clifford, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, said the review was ongoing.

Wilson in an interview contended that the problems with the Street Crime Unit didn't begin and end with the Sickles case, citing in particular poor handling of evidence.

Wilson said that when he discovered the condition of the Street Crime Unit -- potential drugs and cash left unsecured and uncataloged -- "I treated it like a homicide scene."

He said proper handling of evidence is key to preserving prosecutions. Uncataloged drugs or paraphernalia could be used to plant evidence, he said, though he was careful to say he was not accusing anyone of that.

"Criminal prosecutions are built on evidence, and the sanitary condition of evidence," he said. "You cannot have items of evidence, associated with a case, like seized marijuana -- you can't have it lying around in desk drawers, or cabinets. That's no good."

Perini downplayed the significance of the evidence room, saying that "90 percent" of the drugs tested were over-the-counter drugs. The pipes and rolling papers, which were photographed, were props used by undercover officers making drug buys, he said.

"This isn't the Mollen Commission or Serpico," he said, referring to two NYPD corruption cases. "This is something that's being blown out of proportion."

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