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After radio fails cop struggling with violent prisoner, Southold PBA renews call for transmission system repairs

Southold PBA president Richard Buonaiuto, right, with PBA vice president Steven Grattan, center, and PBA delegate Kenneth Richert asked the board to expedite transmission system repairs after an officer in a struggle with a violent prisoner was unable to reach police headquarters on his radio, according to the union rep. Photo: Denise Civiletti

As Police Officer Christopher Salmon struggled with a violent prisoner following an arraignment in Town Justice Court Monday morning, the veteran Southold cop called for backup on his radio — twice.

Help never came because Salmon’s radio transmissions weren’t received by other officers or at PD headquarters a short distance up the road in Peconic.

Salmon, with the assistance of two court officers, managed to subdue the prisoner and get the situation under control, but not before he was injured, requiring treatment at the hospital ER.

It’s what might have been that worries Southold cops, who’ve been coping with an inconsistent and unreliable communications system for several years now. Dead zones scattered throughout the town place officers and the general public in jeopardy, Southold PBA president Richard Buonaiuto told SoutholdLOCAL last month. The failing system urgently needs to be repaired or replaced, Buonaiuto said — and the town isn’t moving fast enough to address the problem.

Buonaiuto, backed up by about 20 other cops and their family members, stood before the town board at last night’s meeting to call for action. He questions why the town is moving ahead first with replacing dispatch equipment and furniture in the radio room at police headquarters before addressing the failing transmission system, “which threatens the safety of my members and of the public,” he told the board from the podium.

The communications consultant the town wants to hire to assess the town’s transmission system requirements agrees with the police union president. The town should replace its current transmission system first — before replacing the dispatch radio equipment, said Dennis Kenter, the Riverhead-based consultant said in an interview last night.

“You can have great dispatch equipment and capabilities, but if your transmission system doesn’t work, what good is it?” asked Kenter.

The current system, which relies on Verizon’s aging copper-wire telephone lines, dates back to the late 1970s or early 1980s and hasn’t been updated to keep up with changes in the environment that affect transmissions systems — things like foliage growth and new construction, according to Kenter. On top of that, Verizon is not devoting resources to repairing or maintaining its copper wireline system and it’s degrading. “Verizon lines have failures on almost a weekly basis,” Kenter said.

But police radio transmission is failing in other ways too, as evidenced by what happened in the justice court Monday morning. That was a short-distance transmission that didn’t even need the wire lines, he said.

“That failure is very concerning and should be investigated immediately,” Kenter said.

Many other dead zones have been identified and those should be addressed right away as well — independent of any impending upgrades or replacements. “Reliable, good communication is critical and there’s no reason not to fix what’s broken,” Kenter said. “It might not even be that complicated or expensive. Let’s get the communications in the field working — figure out what the problems are and fix them,” he said.

Kenter said the cost of replacing the wire-based transmission system with a modern radio-links system won’t be any more than what the town is currently planning to spend to replace the dispatch equipment. It could even be done as a lease, saving the town the capital expenditure, he said.

Supervisor Scott Russell told the PBA members last night that the town is waiting for Kenter to return a signed contract. The consultant is being hired at the police chief’s request to fully assess the transmission system and make recommendations to the town about what needs to be done to repair or replace it, Russell said.

However Kenter said he sent the town a contract for the work back in April and was later informed the town required the contract be prepared by the town attorney. Kenter didn’t get the town’s contract until July 28, he said. And when it came, he discovered it significantly increased the scope of work he’d previously agreed to perform under a cap of $12,500 for 100 hours of work. The town’s contract added phases two and three, which require Kenter to prepare requests for proposals and negotiate with vendors — services that Kenter says he’ll gladly perform but can’t accomplish under the same cap.

“I emailed them the same day to say that and I’ve haven’t heard back yet,” Kenter said last night.

Reached for comment, Russell vowed last night to look into what happened.

“That’s not what I was told and I will address it first thing tomorrow,” the supervisor said. Russell reiterated that the board has already authorized him to sign the contract with Kenter and he will do so as soon as he has a contract signed by Kenter on his desk.

But Kenter’s role is just the first step — actually getting the work done is another story, though Russell said the town board is committed to financing the cost of the project and moving ahead with it. He also said he spoke to Sen. Ken LaValle about it and the senator was “very interested in helping.”

Meanwhile, during yesterday’s work session, board members gave their assent to the police department going forward with a contract with Integrated Wireless Technologies of Quogue to buy new dispatch equipment and furniture for the PD radio room. Police Chief Martin Flaley said the project would require $160,000 in capital project funding from the town’s coffers, in addition to the $179,000 in E911 funding he has set aside to pay for it. The equipment is available on a state-bid contract, so the town does not have to bid it out separately.

Flatley said he’d get the paperwork together so the purchase agreement would be on the town board’s agenda at the next meeting.

Denise Civiletti

Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.