Southampton Town police are reviewing two years of drug cases brought by the department's disbanded street crimes unit as part of an internal investigation -- a review that could affect people convicted of charges and currently in jail, the town police chief said Thursday.
The street crimes unit had four police officers supervised by a sergeant. Town Police Chief William Wilson Jr. shut down the unit last summer because, he said, it "lacked administrative oversight" and because of a personnel issue with a member of the unit.
On May 4, at a hastily scheduled special meeting, the Southampton Town Board suspended Lt. James Kiernan, who had been a supervisor in the street crimes unit, for 38 days because of an unspecified personnel matter. Kiernan has been with the department since 1997 and made $156,461 last year, according to records.
And last week, in a highly publicized action, investigators with the Suffolk County district attorney's office carted boxes of police personnel records out of Town Hall.
Kiernan did not return a call for comment.
"There should have been more interaction with the supervisor of the unit and the members of his team," Wilson said. "If there had been more oversight of the street crimes unit, some of these issues could have been avoided."
As for the review, Wilson declined to say how many cases could be affected. But he said the town police make approximately 2,300 arrests a year, of which some 15 percent to 18 percent are narcotics-related.
"We are taking this very, very seriously," Wilson said in an interview. "We are doing this as quickly and meticulously as possible."
A spokesman for Spota declined to comment Thursday.
Last week, the district attorney's office seized seven boxes of "every confidential personnel police investigation from the police department from the years 1990-2009," according to paperwork filed with the subpoena. Newsday reported Wednesday that Spota's office has a grand jury investigating record-keeping and other matters in the town police department.
The town board hired Wilson, who was chief of the Southampton Village Police Department, in May of last year after longtime Chief James Overton retired. Since then, Wilson's tenure has been "a little bit contentious at times," he said in the interview, leading to at least two conversations with town officials about whether he should leave the job. Wilson said he intends to stay on the job for now.
One of his first actions was to place two town detectives on the East End Drug Task Force, a multijurisdictional narcotics investigative team made up of town, state and county law enforcement agencies. Previously, the town ran its own narcotics investigations and declined to join the task force.
Wilson said he also has ordered a comprehensive review of the department's rules and procedures, and he has tightened security on where investigative personnel files are kept. Previously, they were in a common area under lock and key. They are now under lock and key in his office.
He said he has not seen the files seized by the district attorney's office because they were removed from the department by town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst 72 hours before he became chief. Throne-Holst has said she removed the files for safekeeping because she was concerned that others had altered them.
In an interview, Overton described the police force under his 21-year leadership as "an exemplary operation."
While declining to comment on specifics, Overton said Wilson had the right to do "whatever investigation he feels is necessary."
Throne-Holst said she couldn't say what the impact of the case review now under way might be.
"We are concerned overall about this situation," she said. "We trust it will reveal whatever needs to be revealed. . . . I'm taking a wait-and-see approach."
89: number of police officers employed by town as of May
134: area in square land miles
About 57,000: population (year-round)
About 165,000: opulation (summer)
Supplied by town officials and town website