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Dec 3, 2009 10:23 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Westhampton Beach Village Board will soon decide who will hear charges against suspended officers

Editor's Note: This article was published in The Southampton Press-Western Edition on November 26.
Dec 3, 2009 10:23 AM

The fate of two Westhampton Beach Village Police officers suspended last month after an internal report revealed that they had lied to investigators while being questioned over a missing handgun could be decided shortly, though the Village Board must first determine who will hear the charges.

Westhampton Beach Mayor Conrad Teller said that Officers Michael Bruetsch and Joseph Pesapane, whom the mayor suspended with pay on October 21, were served last week with the charges that were filed against them—the next step required before the officers are subjected to a disciplinary hearing. Both were suspended after the Suffolk County Police Internal Affairs Bureau concluded that they lied to superior officers and investigators about the circumstances surrounding a fellow officer’s missing handgun, which was later recovered.

In the coming weeks, the Village Board must decide if it wants to serve as the disciplinary hearing board or appoint someone else to serve in that capacity, according to the village’s labor attorney, Richard Zuckerman. If they decide to take on that responsibility, board members, who Mayor Teller said also act as the police commissioners, will be the ones who decide if the two officers are innocent or guilty, and then determine the appropriate punishment, if any.

The Village Board’s other option, Mr. Zuckerman explained, would be to charge a separate person with hearing arguments and ask him or her to make recommendations regarding innocence or guilt. That hearing officer, who would be appointed by resolution, would also make recommendations to the Village Board regarding possible punishments.

Possible punishments include outright dismissal, further suspension totaling no more than 20 days, or the docking of pay for up to 20 days, according to state law. The officers also have up to four months after a decision is rendered to file an appeal in New York State Supreme Court. Additionally, Officers Bruetsch and Pesapane could be reinstated if they are vindicated of all charges.

Regardless of which way it goes, the Village Board—Mayor Teller and Village Trustees Joan Levan, Hank Tucker, Toni-Jo Birk and Jim Kametler—will make the final decision in terms of guilt and select the appropriate punishment.

Mr. Zuckerman stressed if the board taps a hearing officer, that person would only make a non-binding recommendation, meaning that the Village Board, acting as police commissioners, will still have the final say.

Village Board members reached this week offered mixed opinions as to whether or not they should act as the hearing board or if they should outsource that duty. Mayor Teller said last week that a resolution that would create a hearing board is in the works, and it could be introduced during the board’s next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, December 2, or the village could hold a special meeting soon to further discuss the matter.

Ms. Birk said she does not think the Village Board should be the hearing officers in this instance. “I hope it gets handled outside the village,” she said. “We’re all too close to the situation.”

Mr. Tucker declined to offer an opinion, stating that the board has not yet discussed which direction it would prefer to take. “We haven’t sat down and talked as a board,” he said on Monday. “It’s a little premature to say.”

When reached last Thursday, November 19, Ms. Levan simply stated: “I’m not discussing this.”

Mayor Teller and Mr. Kametler did not return calls this week seeking comment.

According to New York State law, Officers Bruetsch and Pesapane could be suspended for no more than 30 days without pay in the days preceding a hearing. That suspension is procedural and not a form of punishment. If the hearing does not get resolved within 30 days, the officers go back to being suspended with pay.

If the board selects a hearing officer, that individual will either schedule a hearing or make himself or herself available when the officers want to be heard. There is no time limit in regard to when a hearing has to be held from the time an officer is served with charges. That hearing, however, will take place behind closed doors unless the officers ask for it to be open to the public, according to state law.

The suspended police officers also have a right to counsel during the hearing, according to state law. Officers Bruetsch and Pesapane have hired Hauppauge attorney William Keahon to represent them in their case.

Mr. Keahon declined to comment on whether he would prefer that the Village Board act as the hearing officers or give someone else that responsibility. Mr. Keahon’s clients will have separate hearings.

If the hearing board decides that they are innocent, Officers Bruetsch and Pesapane will be automatically reinstated at their posts in the Westhampton Beach Police Department. Officer Bruetsch makes about $97,800 a year, though his total compensation climbs to more than $115,000 when benefits are included. Officer Pesapane’s base salary is around $71,000, but with benefits, his compensation is about $92,000 a year.

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At the Dec. 2 Board Meeting, the Village Board voted 3-1 to rescind the suspension of the officers and to direct the Chief of Police to vacate the charges against them. While they CAN do the first, they cannot do the second.

(Something is odd with this article. It seems to be a week old on posting.)
By highhatsize (4217), East Quogue on Dec 3, 09 12:46 PM
Cowabunga! This superannuated article appears under, "News, Southampton", while the relevant, current article appears under, "Home". Both with the byline of Hallie D. Martin; both dated Dec.3. But the latter article does not accept comments, even though it is a Village Board report and not a police report.

---------------------------------- COPY EDITOR! -----------------------------------------
By highhatsize (4217), East Quogue on Dec 3, 09 1:09 PM
Ooops, editor, now I see your note. Was that always there?
By highhatsize (4217), East Quogue on Dec 3, 09 1:10 PM
It was.

As for the other story: By default all stories related to Police do not accept comments. The comments section is now turned on.
By BOReilly (135), 27east Web Editor on Dec 3, 09 1:12 PM
By highhatsize (4217), East Quogue on Dec 3, 09 1:33 PM