A Suffolk County Police officer was arrested by Southampton Town Police in December after being accused of striking his girlfriend and endangering the welfare of a child—an arrest that was not made public by the Town Police Department because of a policy designed to protect the victims of domestic violence.
But that policy does not follow state law, according to officials with the State Committee on Open Government, who have said that all police arrests must be public to maintain the public’s right to know who has been arrested.
On December 20 at approximately 12:30 a.m., according to Southampton Town Justice Court records, Suffolk County Police Officer Denis O’Connor, 36, of Manorville fought with a woman, a Southampton Town employee, whom The Press is not identifying because she is a victim of domestic violence, at a house in Flanders.
The woman locked herself in the bathroom of the house, and Mr. O’Connor began banging his body against the door, causing it to crack, according to a statement from the arresting officer, Town Police Sergeant Herbert Johnson, all while a child younger than 17 was in a bedroom in the house. The child told police that they were afraid, Sgt. Johnson said.
A statement by the victim accused Mr. O’Connor of striking her in the face with his hand, leaving a red mark on her cheek.
Mr. O’Connor turned himself in to Town Police on Saturday, December 22, and he was arraigned later that day in Southampton Town Justice Court before Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein.
Court records show that Mr. O’Connor was charged with second-degree harassment and fourth-degree criminal mischief, both misdemeanors, and endangering the welfare of a child, a violation. He was released on his own recognizance following the arraignment.
On January 11, an order of protection was issued against Mr. O’Connor, prohibiting him from having contact with the woman, after a hearing took place in Town Justice Court.
Anthony La Pinta, the Hauppauge-based attorney representing Mr. O’Connor, maintained his client’s innocence and said he looked forward to proving that the charges were false in court.
“Mr. O’Connor is innocent of these charges,” Mr. La Pinta said on Tuesday. “We will fight hard to expose the truth and show the real motivation behind these fabricated allegations.”
The arrest was never made public and was released only after inquiries by The Press after a tip suggested that the arrest had been kept quiet.
When asked nearly two months later why the arrest was never made public, Southampton Town Police Lieutenant Susan Ralph said the arrest report was not provided to reporters in a weekly release of police reports and incidents made available to news outlets on the East End because it involved domestic violence and dealt with a child.
Lt. Ralph said the department has a policy of not releasing arrest reports of people charged with domestic violence, crimes of a sexual nature or endangering a child. The policy is intended to protect the privacy of the victims, she said.
The New York State Committee On Open Government, however, has previously issued opinions on the release of arrest reports. In its opinion, the public has the right to view all such reports, or a blotter, unless disclosing such information would interfere with an investigation, deprive a person of their right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication, identify a confidential source, reveal investigative techniques, endanger the life of the victim or constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
In such cases, the committee said, information can be redacted—or hidden—to protect the victims, whether it be names, addresses or any other identifying characteristics. But reports cannot be completely withheld from release.
“If the incident report involves a police officer as a citizen—as opposed to a law enforcement officer—in my view, your right to access the report would be the same as your right to any other law enforcement incident report,” Kristin O’Neill, the assistant director of the committee said in an email.
It appears that the Town Police may selectively enforce its own policy, however. For example, when a person is arrested for DWI under Leandra’s Law, they are charged with felony DWI but also with endangering the welfare of a child, because they drove while intoxicated with a child in the vehicle—and those reports are readily made available to the press and public.
The department also provided a report in 2017 when a man from Sag Harbor was charged with forcible touching and endangering the welfare of a child under the age of 16, both misdemeanors. When asked why that report was provided, Lt. Ralph said she did not remember it being released in the reports, but it could have been so in an attempt to identify other victims.
State law mandates that a police department provide the public—not just the media—with a blotter of all activities when one is requested. The Southampton Town Police Department has for years refused to follow the law, saying its computer system will not allow the release of a blotter without identifying other confidential information.
As a result, the department releases arrests and other reports on a weekly basis—but there is no blotter to check it against to make sure all public information is being made available.
Although the department has chosen to release some reports, depending on circumstance, Lt. Ralph said she has held the line that reports of domestic violence are not disclosed by the department.
“We provide you with the reports that are criminal in nature, barring juvenile, sexual in nature and domestics,” she said in a previous email. “All arrest reports are provided to you barring the previously mentioned cases, which are barred based on our policy.”
At the time, Lt. Ralph added that she does not hold any other cases back, and that the press gets access to all arrest and incident reports that are “crimes, petty offenses and noteworthy items.”
When asked for the arrest report of Officer O’Connor last Thursday, February 21, Lt. Ralph said she could not provide a copy of the report without first checking with the Suffolk County Police Department. And then on Tuesday she said a physical copy the report could not be provided because it was an ongoing investigation, adding that it also would be an invasion of privacy.
Southampton Town Attorney James Burke said on Tuesday that Lt. Ralph has stood firm on her position on domestic violence incidents for what she might think are valid reasons to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the investigations. But he added that he would reach out to Lt. Ralph and Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki to review their policy, and would discuss the matter with the Town Freedom of Information team.
The Committee on Open Government has repeatedly ruled that reports must be released, but police can redact some information.
“Of potential significance is §87(2)(b) of the Freedom of Information Law, which permits an agency to withhold records or portions thereof when disclosure would constitute ‘an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,’” Robert Freeman, the director of the committee said in an opinion on February 12, 2003. “That provision might be applicable relative to the deletion of identifying details in a variety of situations, i.e., where a record identifies a confidential source, a witness, or perhaps a victim.”
Mr. Freeman went on to say that reports vary in nature from one situation to another.
“To suggest that they may be withheld in their entirety, categorically, in every instance, is in my opinion contrary to both the language of the Freedom of Information Law and its judicial construction by the state’s highest court,” he said in the same opinion.
“As indicated in the preceding commentary, the extent to which those records may be withheld is dependent upon their content and the effects of disclosure. I am not suggesting that incident reports or similar records must in every instance be disclosed; I concur, however, with your statement that determining rights of access to records by an agency should be likened to the use of a ‘scalpel and not a meat ax.’”