Southampton Town Police Officer Eric Sickles, who had been suspended since last July on disciplinary charges relating to a chemical dependency problem, returned to full duty with the department on Tuesday, after the charges against him were settled last week.
Both Officer Sickles and the way his addiction issues were handled by his superiors in the department have been at the center of a politically charged scandal that has enveloped the department for more than a year. It included the release of two convicted felons from prison and the dropping of criminal charges against at least three others, all in cases involving Officer Sickles.
Last May, Town Police Lieutenant James Kiernan also was suspended by the board after then-Police Chief William Wilson filed more than 30 disciplinary charges against him, most of them stemming from his time as the head of the department’s Street Crime Unit, the undercover drug crime investigation team that Officer Sickles served in.
On Thursday, March 21, the Town Board unanimously approved a settlement agreement with Officer Sickles that police union representatives said cleared him of all the disciplinary charges filed against him when he was suspended in July, though he did lose several months of salary due to his suspension.
Town Police Officer Tim O’Flaherty and Detective Kevin Gwinn, the president and vice president, respectively, of the Southampton Town Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the union that represents the department’s rank-and-file officers, confirmed that Officer Sickles attended a drug rehabilitation center early last year for treatment of an addiction to prescription painkillers. Officer Gwinn, with Town Board approval, donated several weeks of his own unused sick days to Officer Sickles, allowing Sickles to receive an additional approximately $13,000 in pay once he had used up his own accrued sick time.
Officer Sickles was expected to work in a regular patrol unit, Officer O’Flaherty said.
“I’m extremely happy to be back to work—it’s a great job,” Officer Sickles said at Town Hall on March 21 after the settlement was approved by the board. “Things are going very good, extremely well. I’d like to thank the PBA for all their support and being there for myself and my family.”
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst congratulated Officer Sickles in the hallway after the vote. “This is how it should be,” she said to him. “This shouldn’t have happened the way it did.”
She would not elaborate in a later interview about what should have been done differently regarding Officer Sickles’s suspension, saying only that the Town Board was satisfied that he had taken the steps necessary to address his addiction and clear him to return to work.
“It was important to make sure that he had gone through the proper process of getting treatment,” she said. “Once he had done that, I felt he should be put back to work. He is a good cop.”
But the conflagration that has swirled around Officer Sickles over the past year flared up yet again just one day after his suspension was lifted, with the filing of yet another lawsuit against the town over past arrests he was involved in—and the revelation that two more convicted drug dealers had charges against them vacated by the district attorney’s office last year.
Just days after Lt. Kiernan’s suspension took effect in May, District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office announced that it would be asking the court to vacate the multi-year prison sentences of two convicted felons, Mohammed Proctor and Bernard Cooks. Both men had been arrested in 2011 on the basis of evidence gathered by Officer Sickles and Lt. Kiernan, who was a sergeant at the time.
Last week, two new dismissals were revealed. According to an attorney representing Nathaniel Cooper, who was arrested in January 2011 following an undercover investigation by Town Police led by Officer Sickles, Mr. Cooper and another man, Karron Whidbee, both had their charges dropped in December 2012.
The attorney, William T. Ferris III, said that Mr. Cooper had served nine months in jail when the charges against him were dropped “in the interest of justice.” Mr. Cooper, through another attorney, has filed a notice of claim, stating his intention to bring a civil lawsuit against the town and the Town Police stemming from his arrest.
At least two other convicted felons have already filed lawsuits against the town and its police department in the wake of the revelations about Officer Sickles’s addiction problem and concerns about his being allowed to continue working on drug investigations by superior officers.
Shortly after Officer Sickles’s suspension was officially lifted, union officials leveled pointed criticism at members of the Town Board and commanding officers within the police department for having allowed Officer Sickles to remain on duty after his addiction had been discovered. Lt. Kiernan, specifically, has been accused of being aware of the situation several months earlier and failing to act or notify superiors, allowing Officer Sickles to continue on active duty despite his addiction.
After the settlement was approved, with Officer Sickles at their side, the union officers emphasized that the settlement with the town vindicates him of wrongdoing. But they pointed fingers at Town Board members and the police department’s top brass for having failed to help one of their officers in need when they learned of his addiction—and of then trying to shift blame to him for the problems that have since arisen with some of the cases he was involved with.
Det. Gwinn and Officer O’Flaherty blasted members of the Town Board and specifically blamed the influence of the Southampton Town Republican Party for what they characterized as a concerted effort to place fault on Officer Sickles’s addiction for the controversy that has enveloped the town force in the last 12 months. Officer Sickles, they said, was used to deflect blame away from others within the department who have strong ties to the Town GOP. Lt. Kiernan is a member of the Southampton Town Republican Committee.
“Politics played a huge role in this,” Det. Gwinn said. “The Republican Party had a huge role … to protect certain individuals who are involved in that party. Officer Sickles was used as a scapegoat. Administrators who mishandled this from day one then used their position in the political community to protect themselves.”
Lt. Kiernan returned to duty in October after serving an approximately five-month suspension, without pay, and pleading guilty to four of the charges against him. Last month, an attorney representing the Superior Officers Association, the union representing sergeants and higher-ranking officers in the department, called on members of the Town Board to expunge Lt. Kiernan’s record of the disciplinary charges, saying it was a blemish on an otherwise exemplary record.
Det. Gwinn on Thursday accused unnamed members of the department’s top brass of having been aware of Officer Sickles’s addiction and allowing him to continue working, and conducting undercover drug investigations. They said that as soon as his addiction was discovered, he should have been pulled from active duty and sent to a rehabilitation center. It was not until union representatives and former Police Chief William Wilson Jr. were alerted to Officer Sickles’s situation that he received needed help, they said.
“When he asked for help, he wasn’t given help,” Det. Gwinn said. “When he came to the union, we acted right away. Chief Wilson was the first call I made, and within 10 minutes Chief Wilson … made a contact with the Seafield Center. It would only have taken one phone call, three months before that, to take care of Eric, and they didn’t do it.”
Earlier this month, Chief Wilson—who resigned in December after months of behind the scenes clashes with the Republican-Conservative Town Board majority over the disciplinary charges he filed against Lt. Kiernan—said that Lt. Kiernan had gone to lengths to cover up Officer Sickles’s addiction and allow him to continue working, even assigning another officer to drive him to investigations when he complained of being unable to stay awake while driving.