A party was held May 29, 2020, at a Cutchogue...

A party was held May 29, 2020, at a Cutchogue tree farm owned by Southold Town Police Sgt. Steven Zuhoski. Credit: Anonymous

A Southold police sergeant took responsibility for not dispatching an officer to a controversial 2020 police retirement party but said the town board took too long to dock his pay and discipline him, according to a lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Suffolk last week.

The Article 78 petition argues that Sgt. Steven Witzke made an “error in judgment” in his handling of that night's public complaints over the party, but seeks to overturn disciplinary charges that were levied against him more than two years later.

“Enforcing discipline years after the fact benefits the community in no significant way,” Lake Success attorney Fredrick J. Richman wrote in the March 12 filing. “This only does harm, shocks one's sense of fairness, and displays disloyalty to officers who have served the community for several years.”

Richman could not be reached for comment Wednesday. 

The 2020 gathering took place after the police department held a traditional walkout ceremony for former police Sgt. Steven Zuhoski, who retired after 24 years on the force, at his Cutchogue farm.

Residents complained to Southold officials that the police department ignored their calls during the party, which violated COVID-19 social distancing protocols, and that fireworks were shot off.

Witzke’s filing sheds new light on the incident, alleging that top-ranking officials were aware of the party and potential violations that would occur after Zuhoski distributed invitations “to nearly all” of the department.

“It was well known within the Southold Town Police Department that fireworks were planned and that music and entertainment were inevitable with a large guest list,” the petition says.

Witzke, the highest ranking officer on the night shift, said he didn’t receive any direction from superiors on handling complaints about the party and admits to not dispatching cars in response to calls, which were also not logged into a computer system.

Southold officials hired Justin Block, of Central Islip-based Sinnreich, Kosakoff & Messina LLP, in July 2020 to investigate the department’s response to the party after finding a preliminary investigation by Police Chief Martin Flatley to be inadequate.

Block’s report was submitted to the town on July 22, 2022, and the town took disciplinary action against Witzke and four others on Aug. 10 of that year — 27 months later.

The petition argues that the town violated state laws that require charges to be brought within 60 days of the town board being aware of any incident. State Civil Service law also sets a statute of limitations that prohibits disciplinary actions from starting more than 18 months after the alleged misconduct, unless it is a crime.

Witzke contends that despite the outside investigation, the town board already knew that the preliminary probe revealed his role and could have brought charges against him sooner.

He was initially suspended for 30 days without pay, a punishment that was later reduced to 20 days. The town board issued Witzke 10 days of back pay at the recommendation of a hearing officer, who found in November 2023 that he failed to address complaints and discredited the department by engaging in conduct “unbecoming” of a police officer.

He wants the charges dropped and 20 days of back pay, which could total roughly $14,350.  Witzke had a base salary of $172,409 in 2023, according to town payroll records.

Flatley did not respond to requests to comment for this story. He served a more than 70-day suspension in 2022, ultimately reaching a settlement with the town that included a public apology, a permanent letter of reprimand in his file and an agreement to retire this June.

Court records show Southold has not yet filed a response to the action. Town Supervisor Al Krupski did not return phone calls seeking comment. Town attorney Paul DeChance declined to comment because the matter is in litigation. 

Scott Russell, the town supervisor at the time, did not comment on the lawsuit specifically but said the investigation went on too long.

“The investigator was way too slow, without a doubt,” Russell said. “I didn’t see a sense of urgency from anybody, and it became very frustrating.”

A Southold police sergeant took responsibility for not dispatching an officer to a controversial 2020 police retirement party but said the town board took too long to dock his pay and discipline him, according to a lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Suffolk last week.

The Article 78 petition argues that Sgt. Steven Witzke made an “error in judgment” in his handling of that night's public complaints over the party, but seeks to overturn disciplinary charges that were levied against him more than two years later.

“Enforcing discipline years after the fact benefits the community in no significant way,” Lake Success attorney Fredrick J. Richman wrote in the March 12 filing. “This only does harm, shocks one's sense of fairness, and displays disloyalty to officers who have served the community for several years.”

Richman could not be reached for comment Wednesday. 

   WHAT TO KNOW

  • The highest ranking police official on duty the night of a controversial 2020 police party in Southold has filed a lawsuit against the town.
  • Sgt. Steven Witzke argues the town was “untimely” in bringing charges against him.
  • His 30-day suspension without pay was reduced to 20 days after an appeal.

The 2020 gathering took place after the police department held a traditional walkout ceremony for former police Sgt. Steven Zuhoski, who retired after 24 years on the force, at his Cutchogue farm.

Residents complained to Southold officials that the police department ignored their calls during the party, which violated COVID-19 social distancing protocols, and that fireworks were shot off.

Witzke’s filing sheds new light on the incident, alleging that top-ranking officials were aware of the party and potential violations that would occur after Zuhoski distributed invitations “to nearly all” of the department.

“It was well known within the Southold Town Police Department that fireworks were planned and that music and entertainment were inevitable with a large guest list,” the petition says.

Witzke, the highest ranking officer on the night shift, said he didn’t receive any direction from superiors on handling complaints about the party and admits to not dispatching cars in response to calls, which were also not logged into a computer system.

Southold officials hired Justin Block, of Central Islip-based Sinnreich, Kosakoff & Messina LLP, in July 2020 to investigate the department’s response to the party after finding a preliminary investigation by Police Chief Martin Flatley to be inadequate.

Block’s report was submitted to the town on July 22, 2022, and the town took disciplinary action against Witzke and four others on Aug. 10 of that year — 27 months later.

The petition argues that the town violated state laws that require charges to be brought within 60 days of the town board being aware of any incident. State Civil Service law also sets a statute of limitations that prohibits disciplinary actions from starting more than 18 months after the alleged misconduct, unless it is a crime.

Witzke contends that despite the outside investigation, the town board already knew that the preliminary probe revealed his role and could have brought charges against him sooner.

He was initially suspended for 30 days without pay, a punishment that was later reduced to 20 days. The town board issued Witzke 10 days of back pay at the recommendation of a hearing officer, who found in November 2023 that he failed to address complaints and discredited the department by engaging in conduct “unbecoming” of a police officer.

He wants the charges dropped and 20 days of back pay, which could total roughly $14,350.  Witzke had a base salary of $172,409 in 2023, according to town payroll records.

Flatley did not respond to requests to comment for this story. He served a more than 70-day suspension in 2022, ultimately reaching a settlement with the town that included a public apology, a permanent letter of reprimand in his file and an agreement to retire this June.

Court records show Southold has not yet filed a response to the action. Town Supervisor Al Krupski did not return phone calls seeking comment. Town attorney Paul DeChance declined to comment because the matter is in litigation. 

Scott Russell, the town supervisor at the time, did not comment on the lawsuit specifically but said the investigation went on too long.

“The investigator was way too slow, without a doubt,” Russell said. “I didn’t see a sense of urgency from anybody, and it became very frustrating.”

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