clubhouse, east hampton, indoor, tennis, cornhole, bar, happy hour, bowling, mini golf

Story - News

Jul 25, 2012 10:58 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Planting Drugs An Old Accusation For Southampton Cops

Jul 25, 2012 11:32 AM

In the wake of a lawsuit filed by a convicted drug dealer, which claims that a Southampton Town Police officer planted drugs on him, several attorneys said this week that they have heard similar claims from their clients for years that members of the town’s undercover drug unit, the Street Crime Unit, had fabricated evidence—though most said they often took such claims with a grain of salt.

At the same time, the town’s police union said the officers involved, and the unit itself, were not rife with corruption as some might suspect based on the hazy insinuations of misdeeds in recent months. They expect more lawsuits and false accusations to come from the criminals that the unit arrested over the years.

Four local criminal defense attorneys said that they’ve heard accusations from clients about drugs having been planted by officers of the Street Crime Unit, a now-disbanded special narcotics investigation team. Two other attorneys said they’d never heard such claims from clients. Few of the attorneys were willing to discuss the matter on the record.

Susan Menu, an attorney for one of the two convicted drug dealers released from prison after the Suffolk County district attorney’s office told the court the cases on which their arrests were based may have been compromised by the Street Crime Unit, said that she has no reason to believe that police planted evidence on her client, Bernard Cooks, in the case against him. But she did say that she has heard such claims against the defunct Street Crime Unit in the past, and was inclined to believe it in a couple of instances—though never in a case involving Officer Eric Sickles, who is accused of planting cocaine on Craig Chillemi in the lawsuit filed last week.

“Back in the day of the Street Crime Unit, did I suspect that some of them planted drugs on my clients? Absolutely,” Ms. Menu said. “I have specific people in mind, but not Eric Sickles—I don’t know Eric Sickles, I never really dealt with him.”

Officer Sickles was suspended by the Southampton Town Board earlier this month following the filing of disciplinary charges by Southampton Town Police Chief William Wilson Jr., including using illegal drugs while on duty. In May, the Town Board also suspended Lieutenant James Kiernan after Chief Wilson filed disciplinary charges against him stemming from incidents while he was the head of the Street Crime Unit, including allowing Officer Sickles to continue working despite being aware of his substance abuse on the job.

Chief Wilson disbanded the Street Crime Unit in December and enrolled the town department in the Suffolk County Drug Task Force, a multi-jurisdictional investigations unit coordinated by the district attorney’s office, which the town had not participated in prior.

Last week, Mr. Chillemi, an oft-arrested convicted drug dealer who is serving a prison sentence on charges stemming from a case not handled by the town cops, filed a $1 million lawsuit against Officer Sickles, Lt. Kiernan and former Town Police Detective Thomas Tully. The suit accused the three of colluding to frame him for crimes he didn’t commit in an attempt to get him to stop dating Det. Tully’s daughter. The suit alleges that Officer Sickles planted cocaine on him and lied in his arrest report, saying Mr. Chillemi was driving a car he claims not to have been driving, in order to justify the arrest.

Southampton Town Police Benevolent Association Vice-President Kevin Gwinn, himself a former member of the Street Crime Unit, said that he expects accusations like Mr. Chillemi’s will be “coming out of the woodwork” in the wake of press accounts of the charges against Lt. Kiernan and Officer Sickles, the questions about the Street Crime Unit’s practices, and the investigation of Town Police records by the Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office.

“I was a part of the unit from 1993 to 1997, and it wasn’t unusual for people to make those kind of desperate statements—they’re facing serious narcotics charges and looking at spending a long time in prison for their actions. They’re desperate,” Officer Gwinn said, referring specifically to the claims made in Mr. Chillemi’s lawsuit. “It’s complete fiction. During my 25 years on the job, I’ve been involved in more than 1,000 arrests, probably 500 of them on Street Crime, and there were dozens of allegations made—and none of them was founded, not one.”

Officer Gwinn echoed his previous claims that Officer Sickles will be cleared of wrongdoing in the long run, and he stood by the history of the Street Crime Unit as a good collection of police officers facing unfounded allegations. “I’m very proud to have been a part of that unit—I wouldn’t exchange it for anything,” he said. “In law enforcement, we’re pretty thick-skinned. Allegations are going to be made by desperate people, we realize that. When I was a young officer, it bothered me, but as you mature, you realize it is part of what we do, and you do the best you can to ignore it.”

You've read 1 of 7 free articles this month.

Already a subscriber? Sign in