Southampton's ex-top cop defends department

James Overton, former Southampton police chief, in Riverhead.

James Overton, former Southampton police chief, in Riverhead. (May 23, 2012) Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Former Southampton Town Police Chief James Overton Wednesday strongly defended top officers and practices during his 21-year tenure at the helm of a department that now is being investigated by a Suffolk grand jury.

In his first extended interview on the topic, Overton charged that critics of the department have political motivations.

Overton, who spent 43 years on the force before retiring in April of last year, also defended a street crimes unit formed during his tenure that has since been disbanded, calling the change "a terrible move."

Last week, current Police Chief William Wilson Jr. said the unit "lacked administrative oversight," among other criticisms. Countered Overton: "My people did a great job. They don't deserve what's going on."

Record keeping and other department practices are the focus of an internal Southampton police investigation and the grand jury probe led by Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, who earlier this month seized seven boxes of police investigatory files from Southampton Town. Wilson has said two years of drug convictions were under review and could be affected.

Overton, who long resisted assigning town police to a county East End Task Force formed by Spota to crack down on drug and related crimes, said he had his suspicions that county, town and police politics were behind the scrutiny.

"I think it's all political," said Overton. "It starts with Mr. Spota's office and it ends with the supervisor," referring to Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst. He later pointed to a "coordinated effort by [police] union officials to malign the reputations of some fine people."

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Earlier this month, 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.

Overton stood by Kiernan, describing him as "very dedicated, conscientious, and truthful." Kiernan didn't return a call seeking comment.

A spokesman for Spota was not immediately available for comment. Throne-Holst said, "These matters are being investigated, and the only way to find out if they are founded or unfounded is the results of the investigation." Southampton Patrolman's Benevolent Association vice president Kevin Gwinn declined to comment.

Wilson, in an email, said, "I do not allow political interference or union opinions to dictate the direction an internal and/or criminal investigation takes."

Asked what he expected Spota's probe to find, Overton said, "I think he'd be relieved that internal investigations were conducted as thoroughly as they were. The silliest thing I heard is the allegation of personnel files being destroyed," he said.

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Overton said he's particularly disturbed by the public airing of police matters that he considers internal.

"I've done a ton of internal investigations," he said. "You don't publicize a particular problem. You do an investigation, find results, report it properly and make recommendations" to fix it.

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