The Southampton Town Board will consider a bill next month that would bar Town Police officers from serving on any political party committees or as party officials.
Councilwoman Bridget Fleming proposed the bill this week, calling it a possible way to eliminate the accusations of pervasive political influence within the Southampton Town Police Department’s chain of command, which have dogged the department in recent months. She said removing cops from the official political arena would, at the very least, eliminate the appearance of any possible improper influence being involved in decisions about policy, promotions or the handling of internal affairs and investigations—all issues that have come up within the town department in the last two years.
“Over the past couple of years, we’ve had some issues with regard to the police department that have manifested in disciplinary charges and … a number of things that raise concerns both for [the Town Board members] as commissioners and for the public,” Ms. Fleming said on Tuesday, shortly before the Town Board voted to schedule a public hearing on the bill. “We have an obligation to take whatever steps we can to make sure the police department is run in an impartial way. We’re making a lot of other changes already, with policy and technology—this is just part of that.”
Last year, former Police Chief William Wilson Jr. filed ethics complaints against Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi and Councilwoman Christine Scalera, saying that they should have recused themselves from their role in the investigation of disciplinary charges he had filed against Lieutenant James Kiernan, who is a member of the Southampton Town Republican Committee. The committee makes decisions about who will get the party’s endorsement, and financial support, in town elections.
Chief Wilson has also accused the Republican Party of playing a role in controlling the ascension of officers within the department ranks, ensuring that those loyal to the party receive promotions and are moved up the ladder into top brass jobs—including the chief’s office.
“Frankly, what I’m sitting back watching unfold is a political entity that wants to march somebody into a chief of police position,” the former chief said in a recent interview. “Because that’s what’s unfolding. And that’s all about political payback. The politics and the tentacles of the politics have become so firmly grasped around the throat of that police department, it’s far worse than anything I had ever imagined. There is just flat-out political patronage being conducted there.”
Last month, members of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the union representing the rank-and-file police officers, leveled pointed criticism at Republican members of the Town Board for what they characterized as efforts by the politicians to shift blame for the fallout from a district attorney’s office investigation of the department, which has led to charges being dropped against a number of convicted felons.
Officer Eric Sickles was discovered to have been addicted to prescription drugs while continuing to work on undercover drug investigations, under Lt. Kiernan’s supervision. Former Chief Wilson accused Lt. Kiernan of having allowed Officer Sickles to work after becoming aware of his dependency issues, jeopardizing the cases they built against criminals. Two convicted felons were released from prison last year after the district attorney’s office found faults in the cases built against them by Officer Sickles and Lt. Kiernan and asked the court to dismiss the cases.
Ms. Fleming said that while there may well not have been any political influence at play in the handling of the charges against Lt. Kiernan—who returned to duty last October after a six-month suspension—the potential for the sort of accusations made by Chief Wilson and the PBA leadership would have been greatly muted were he not a member of the political committee. She also acknowledged that to the extent interpersonal relationships between politically active people extend beyond just party committees, the legislation would likely not be a fix-all for any perceived issues of political influence in the police department—but said it would be a start.
“No, it won’t end it completely, but it’s a step I can offer,” Ms. Fleming said. “Whether there is influence there or not, there is no reason we should even have to have the discussion, to have the appearance of impropriety. This will free the cops to do their jobs without outside pressures.”
The board will host a public hearing on the proposed legislation at its May 14 meeting.
Only Councilman Jim Malone voted against holding the public hearing on the legislation—he offered no explanation for his objection—though other members did raise concerns about whether the town could legally impose such restrictions on police officers locally.
“I don’t know that we can make a restriction like this,” Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said. “If we do it for the police, does it have to be done for everyone in town employment? That said, we’re all trying to get on a straight and narrow course here. To the degree you can take politics out of anything here, it’s a good thing.”