Westhampton Beach Police Officer Suspended Without Pay After Stalking Arrest

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A Westhampton Beach Village Police officer was suspended—for the fourth time in his eight-year tenure with the department—without pay last week, four months after he was arrested by Suffolk County Police and charged with fourth-degree stalking, a misdemeanor, according to court documents.

The Board of Trustees voted unanimously to suspend Officer Joseph Pesapane without pay for a maximum of 30 days, as permitted by state law, pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing. At the same special meeting called last Wednesday, January 29, board members also voted to hire Steven Kasarda, an attorney with offices in White Plains, to act as the hearing officer.

Mr. Kasarda will draft a report based on the testimony during the upcoming hearing, which could span anywhere from a few days to several months, and will make a recommendation to the board, which, after receiving advice from its counsel, will make the ultimate decision on a possible punishment, board members said.

Village officials, including Mayor Conrad Teller and Deputy Mayor Ralph Urban, declined to discuss those possible options, citing a state law that prohibits them from discussing the matter, and would not confirm if termination would be one of the options. They also declined to speculate if Mr. Pesapane’s prior issues would have any bearing on the latest disciplinary hearing.

Mr. Pesapane was suspended from the police department three times during an investigation into his role in a 2009 incident that involved another officer’s missing handgun. In that incident, Mr. Pesapane and fellow officer Michael Bruetsch, who was forced to retire in 2012 after 15 years of employment or face termination, were charged with lying to Suffolk County Internal Affairs Bureau investigators regarding the handgun that went missing from police headquarters.

While village officials did not name Mr. Pesapane during last week’s special meeting held at Village Hall—and referred to him in a resolution only as an employee of the village—multiple sources confirmed that he was the subject of the disciplinary action.

Richard Zuckerman, the village’s labor attorney, explained Tuesday that he and all village officials are prohibited by state law from discussing any police officer’s disciplinary proceedings. He did, however, confirm that a hearing regarding an unnamed Westhampton Beach police officer had been scheduled for Thursday, February 6, at Village Hall. The hearing is not open to the public.

Disciplinary hearings are confidential unless the employee in question requests that the proceedings be made public, Mr. Zuckerman said.

Suffolk County Police confirmed last week that Mr. Pesapane was arrested on September 29, 2013, and charged with fourth-degree stalking, a misdemeanor. The alleged incident occurred three days prior and at around 3 a.m., according to court documents. A Suffolk County Police spokesperson said the department could not share additional details about the incident, including where it occurred, in order to protect the victim’s privacy.

The Press submitted a Freedom of Information Law request this week with the Suffolk County Police seeking Mr. Pesapane’s arrest report, though it had not yet been honored as of Wednesday.

Mr. Pesapane’s attorney, Craig Fleischer, did not return calls seeking comment. Rey Mauro, the attorney representing Mr. Pesapane in the upcoming disciplinary proceedings, also did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

When reached last Wednesday afternoon, shortly after the board voted on his suspension, Mr. Pesapane directed all questions to his attorneys. But when asked about the criminal charge, Mr. Pesapane said: “My comment on the situation is that the complainant has no credibility whatsoever. This is a lie and a falsehood.”

Mr. Zuckerman, speaking generally and without referring to any specific employee, explained Tuesday that criminal justice proceedings occur independently from disciplinary hearings. He also noted that the burden of proof is lower for employers during disciplinary hearings than it is for prosecutors in criminal cases.

“A person can only be found guilty in a criminal proceeding if the person is found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, which basically means that no one else could have done the bad thing,” he said. “A disciplinary hearing is different in that the employer only has to prove that it is more likely than not that the bad thing happened.”

Mr. Zuckerman also noted that “a finding of guilty in criminal court does not necessary imply a finding of guilty in the disciplinary proceedings, and vice-versa.”

Mr. Pesapane was arraigned in 1st District Court in Central Islip on September 30 before Judge G. Ann Spelman and released on his own recognizance. Judge Spelman also issued a temporary restraining order for the alleged victim, according to court records. The charges are still pending.

Mr. Teller said he was aware of Mr. Pesapane’s arrest, though he declined to say when he and other Village Board members first learned of the officer’s run-in with the law. The mayor also noted that all village employees, including police officers, are required by law to disclose to the village if and when they are arrested, and explain why. Mr. Teller declined to comment further.

Westhampton Beach Village Police Chief Ray Dean also declined to comment on the incident, explaining that he is prohibited from commenting on disciplinary proceeding involving his employees.

Village Clerk Elizabeth Lindtvit said Mr. Pesapane was paid $127,285 in 2013. He was hired in January 2006.

The previous disciplinary hearings were held in response to an outside police investigation that concluded that Mr. Bruetsch “came into possession” of the personal handgun belonging to Village Police Officer Steven McManus that had been left in his locker at police headquarters while he was on vacation. According to the same confidential report prepared by the Suffolk County Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), and obtained by The Press, Mr. Bruetsch had been accused of three counts of conduct unbecoming of an officer and lying five times to investigators who were brought in to get to the bottom of the incident.

Mr. Pesapane, meanwhile, was charged with lying to investigators regarding the missing gun after he discussed the issue with Mr. Bruetsch prior to meeting with internal affairs investigators regarding the missing handgun, according to the same report. Additional charges were later added, including two counts of making false statements and one count of intentionally providing false or incomplete information to investigators, Mr. Teller said at the time.

Mr. Pesapane was first suspended in 2009 while the IAB investigated charges that he had lied about the missing gun incident. He was suspended again in 2010 after additional charges, including making false statements and intentionally providing false or incomplete information to investigators, were leveled against him. In 2011, the Village Board suspended Mr. Pesapane without pay for the third time as punishment for those charges. He returned to work full-time later that year.

In 2007, Mr. Pesapane was named “Officer of the Year” by the Westhampton Beach Police Department for the bravery he displayed while off-duty in chasing and arresting a man who fled the scene after striking and injuring a bicyclist in Coram.

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