Town lawmakers this week denied culpability as alleged in the sexual discrimination complaints filed by two female Southampton Town Police sergeants, while the leader of the department’s rank-and-file stood behind the allegations and said they come amid a climate of retaliation and a regression to an old way of business under the new administration.
Members of the Town Board this week maintained that neither gender nor personal allegiances within the department was behind the board’s decision not to promote one of the sergeants, Lisa Costa, even though she was recommended for promotion on multiple occasions by then-Chief of Police William Wilson Jr.
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said that she and Councilwoman Bridget Fleming had supported promoting Sgt. Costa to lieutenant, as Chief Wilson had submitted official requests asking them to do on at least two occasions. Ms. Throne-Holst said that the majority of the board—Town Board members Chris Nuzzi, Christine Scalera and Jim Malone—were strident in their repeated refusals to grant the promotion.
At one point, when the three other board members pushed forward a resolution to promote then-Lieutenant Robert Pearce to captain against the recommendation of Chief Wilson, Ms. Throne-Holst said she asked that Sgt. Costa be promoted at the same time, but that the majority again refused. Board members said that Sgt. Costa would have to be interviewed by the Town Board first, a step that was not taken with other department candidates for promotion. The interview never happened.
Then-Lt. Pearce is now chief of police, having succeeded Chief Wilson when the chief abruptly resigned in December.
Mr. Malone, a Conservative Party member, said that as he remembers those tumultuous days, the inclination of the majority to not promote Sgt. Costa was more of a product of the doubts about Chief Wilson and his management of the department than any problems with Sgt. Costa. “There was a lot going on there, with regard to the police chief’s judgment,” Mr. Malone said on Tuesday. “It was not necessarily a reflection on the officer, just a question about the chief of police who was making the recommendation.”
Mr. Malone also dismissed claims that a complaint filed by Sergeant Susan Ralph was spurred by retaliatory actions from the department’s new administration for her perceived allegiance to Chief Wilson. He said he does not believe that there is such “choosing of sides” within the department or that such a divisive atmosphere lingers in the wake of Chief Wilson’s short and tumultuous tenure at the top of the department.
The conflicts between Chief Wilson and members of the board swirled into a maelstrom of dysfunction when the chief suspended one of his top officers, Lieutenant James Kiernan, and filed a long list of disciplinary charges against him. The town and attorneys for Lt. Kiernan reached a settlement of the charges last fall, and the lieutenant returned to duty in October.
In the wake of the board’s refusal to grant Sgt. Costa’s promotion, Chief Wilson had tapped her to be an “acting lieutenant” and the supervisor of the department’s patrol division. Since his departure, according to members of the department, she has been stripped of the acting role and removed from the head of the patrol division, replaced by Lt. Kiernan.
Councilman Nuzzi declined to comment on the complaints filed by the sergeants or the dynamics of the board’s decision not to promote Sgt. Costa.
The complaints by the sergeants drew sympathy and understanding this week from the Southampton Town Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the union that represents the officers of the town department but not its sergeants and higher-ranking brass. Nonetheless, the union’s spokesman, Detective Kevin Gwinn, said that discrimination against female officers by top brass has been an issue within the department for years, and that Chief Wilson, who spent the bulk of his career with the Southampton Village Police Department, had been trying to change that culture.
Now that control of the department has shifted back to the senior officers who led the department before his administration, he said, there is a sense that there is push-back from those who resisted or perhaps resented the changes Chief Wilson was driving through.
“This isn’t the first time there have been concerns by female officers on this job,” Det. Gwinn said. “The old regime is back in office, and right away, what do we have? Two females filing a complaint already, and both were Chief Wilson supporters.”
Det. Gwinn said there is strong support among the department’s rank-and-file for the well-liked Chief Pearce, a 32-year veteran of the town force, but concern that changes the officers had sought, and got, under Chief Wilson are now being eroded. He noted that the promotion this week of Sergeant Michael Zarro, rather than Sgt. Costa, to lieutenant was “disheartening.” Sgt. Zarro scored one point higher than Sgt. Costa on a recent lieutenants qualification exam. His promotion, and that of officers James Cavanagh and William Kiernan to sergeant, were the first promotions recommended by Chief Pearce since taking command of the department. Sgt. Zarro’s promotion was approved unanimously by the Town Board, but the sergeant promotions were withdrawn after a closed-door discussion by board members on Tuesday night.