Southold's town board voted Tuesday to take disciplinary action against...

Southold's town board voted Tuesday to take disciplinary action against two more town police officials in response to how the department handled complaints about a police retirement party in 2020 when large gatherings were banned amid the pandemic. Credit: Randee Daddona

Southold has taken disciplinary action against two more of its police officials following a series of hearings probing the department’s response to a colleague’s retirement party during the COVID-19 shutdown in May 2020.

The party drew complaints from residents who said the department was “dismissive” of their concerns and flouted state law, which at the time banned large gatherings due to social distancing protocols amid the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the town board voted 5-1 to suspend an officer and reduce a sergeant's already-served suspension. The resolutions didn't spell out the exact disciplinary charges, but noted both officers were found guilty of dereliction of duty.

The actions marked the conclusion of a more than three-year investigation into how the Southold Town Police Department handled complaints over a May 29, 2020, retirement party at a Cutchogue tree farm owned by former police Sgt. Steven Zuhoski.

The probe ensnared the department's top cop, with Police Chief Martin Flatley serving a more than 70-day suspension last year. He ultimately reached a settlement with the town that included a public apology, a permanent letter of reprimand in his file and an agreement to retire on June 24, 2024.

Flatley declined to comment in an email Wednesday, saying he wasn't sure "if these dispositions are finalized."

Southold Town Police Benevolent Association President Roman Wilinski couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

The 2020 gathering took place after the police department held a traditional walkout ceremony earlier that day for Zuhoski, who retired after 24 years on the force, and two other retiring officers.

A view of the May 29, 2020, police retirement party...

A view of the May 29, 2020, police retirement party at a Cutchogue tree farm owned by Steven Zuhoski, a former Southold police sergeant who retired that day. The Southold town board on Tuesday voted to discipline two more police officials as an internal probe into the handling of complaints about the gathering, which took place at a time during the pandemic when large gatherings were banned, wrapped up. Credit: File

One East End resident previously told Newsday she called police twice after seeing an estimated 90 to 130 people at the party, which featured a DJ and what appeared to be a professional fireworks show.

In Tuesday's resolutions, the officers who were disciplined were identified only by their employee numbers. The numbers correspond to Sgt. Steven Witzke and police officer Daniel Mackey, according to a town document detailing who pays Southold Town police union dues.

Witzke, who already served a 30-day unpaid suspension, will have his suspension reduced to 20 days. The board found he “failed to receive, record and service immediately all complaints and requests for service,” failed to follow department protocols and discredited the department by engaging in conduct “unbecoming” of a police officer.

Mackey will be suspended two days without pay after the board concluded he failed to remain on his assigned post, left without supervisor approval and failed to obey laws he was obliged to enforce, among other infractions.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell cast the lone votes against both resolutions and said after the meeting he wanted more time to review the hearing officer’s report, which he said he received last week.

“Suspending an officer is a pretty drastic move, and I haven’t had a chance to read any of the conclusions thoroughly,” Russell said after the meeting.

A third officer, John Hinton, evaded punishment after the board voted 6-0 to reject the hearing officer’s recommendation to penalize him with a written reprimand that would have stayed in his personnel file for 18 months.

“The board accepts that no further penalty is required beyond the aforesaid finding of guilt,” the resolution regarding Hinton reads.

A fourth employee, who wasn't publicly identified, had been facing disciplinary charges. Russell said Tuesday the town isn't pursuing action against that employee.

Records show the disciplinary hearings took place between May and July of this year, and the supervisor acknowledged the process has taken longer than anticipated.

“It’s disappointing that it took as long as it did,” Russell said. “But there’s a due process.”

Asked whether the department should take steps to restore public trust, Russell said: “I think the public has a lot of faith and confidence in the department. There was a transgression. It happened. It’s time to move along.”

Daisy Rymer, who called police that day about the party while living in Southold for the season as a college student, said Wednesday she believes the disciplinary outcomes “should have been a lot more severe” and it was “distasteful” to hold the event during the pandemic's height.

“Everyone else was doing their part,” Rymer, 24, said of following restrictions.

Town Attorney Paul DeChance answered a Freedom of Information Law request Newsday made Tuesday for investigation documents referenced during the meeting, including the hearing officer's report and probe results, by saying the documents weren't yet publicly available.

“We are obliged to wait the appeal time period,” DeChance said, citing a 30-day window for the police officials to appeal the discipline.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Southold finished a probe of its police department's response to a 2020 police retirement party.
  • The event at a retiring sergeant's farm happened during a ban on large gatherings due to COVID-19.
  • The town board voted Tuesday to discipline two more police officials.
  • The police chief already served a suspension, apologized and agreed to retire in June.
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