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Gregg Trager, Suffolk cop, sues county over demotion

Gregg Trager, who was demoted from sergeant by

Gregg Trager, who was demoted from sergeant by the Suffolk County Police Department, at his home in Islip Terrace on Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014. Credit: Randee Daddona

A Suffolk police officer claims he was demoted from sergeant for not handling a Nesconset Highway car wreck last spring, even though a sheriff's deputy was already on the scene.

Gregg Trager, who is suing the county, says he's a victim of a political turf war over highway enforcement that emphasizes jurisdictional control over public safety. The lawsuit was filed in September in state Supreme Court.

County and police officials said they wouldn't comment on the pending litigation.

The lawsuit says Trager, 43, a 14-year veteran, had just gotten to work on April 9 when a dispatcher told him a deputy was at the scene of a three-car crash at Nesconset Highway and Gibbs Pond Road that had occurred 40 minutes earlier.

The call had been labeled a Priority 1 -- the highest -- and involved a woman who was eight months pregnant, though no injuries were reported, according to the accident report.

The dispatcher told Trager there were no police units available and asked if the deputy could continue to handle it. Trager gave his approval after consulting with a senior sergeant, the suit says.

Two days later, Trager was asked by his superiors why he allowed a sheriff's deputy to handle the crash. According to the suit, Lt. Barry Fox told Trager top officials were angry because the nonresponse "made it look like we let the sheriff do our job, and we do not let the sheriffs do our work."

In a report filed by Fox to a Fourth Precinct inspector, Fox said he told Trager the best thing would have been to "advise any other agency that we . . . will respond and handle the assignment."

"In the event of physical injury, obviously taking care of the injured is first priority, but other than possibly rendering an assist no other agency . . . is to handle assignments that are the sole jurisdiction of SCPD," Fox wrote.

At the time, Trager was in the final days of his probationary period as a sergeant, according to the suit.

In an internal report on May 2 recommending against Trager being promoted to sergeant, Deputy Insp. Armando Valencia cited Trager's decision to allow the deputy to handle the crash and other performance concerns, including an ongoing domestic dispute between Trager and his estranged wife.

"Sgt. Trager has not exhibited the sufficient leadership and interpersonal skills for the position and his documented lapses in judgment and inability to make sound decisions has raised serious questions as to his suitability," Valencia wrote.

The suit says Trager received a positive job evaluation a few months before the April accident, and had received only praise in his new post.

Trager's attorney, Rick Ostrove of Carle Place, said he's a casualty of a tug-of-war between the county sheriff's and police departments over which agency patrols the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway, a battle that is playing out in court.

The turf war began in 2008 when then-County Executive Steve Levy ordered lower-paid deputies to take over patrols of the LIE and Sunrise Highway from the police highway patrol as a cost-saving measure.

The ongoing feud between the two agencies has created a territorial atmosphere that includes other highways, Ostrove said.

"It's offensive for the police department to say traffic should be backed up and an eight-month pregnant female should wait on the side of the road for an extra 30 minutes because of some political dispute," Ostrove said.

Sheriff's department Chief of Staff Michael Sharkey noted that "legally, there's jurisdiction for either entity to do any sort of police enforcement anywhere in the county."

In a pending motion to dismiss the lawsuit, an assistant county attorney noted the department has "wide discretion" in determining whether to demote a probationary employee and may do so "for any reason so long as the decision is not arbitrary or capricious."

Trager is seeking restoration of his title and back pay. A hearing in the case is expected next month.

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