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Police Chief Makes the Case for the Gun Club

Thu, 09/14/2023 - 11:20

His officers rely on it for firearms training 

“We take a lot of pride in the professionalism of our training officers and how much time and effort we put into safety,” East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said of his department's training at the Maidstone Gun Club.
Christine Sampson

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo made a case for the continued existence of the Maidstone Gun Club to the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee on Saturday, saying that his officers rely on it for training and that the training has never caused an incident such as bullets fired from the club hitting houses, an allegation that led to the club’s being shuttered by order of a New York State Supreme Court judge in December.

The private club has been under fire since August of 2022, after a bullet that allegedly originated at the club struck a house on Merchants Path. In a January report, town police detectives called the club’s safety management system at its outdoor rifle range “degraded, inadequate, and poorly maintained” and stated that “there is a great probability that errant bullets left the facility” in a direction toward nearby houses, but did not recommend criminal charges. The incident was one of eight reported instances of bullets striking Wainscott houses in recent years.

The report was filed as evidence in a lawsuit brought by Wainscott residents against the club and the town, which leases the 97-acre property to the club for $100 per year. The lease expires on Oct. 31, and club officials filed a notice of intent to renew the lease with the town clerk last year.

Separately, the town board passed a resolution last Thursday to retain outside counsel, Daniel Cahn of Cahn & Cahn, P.C., an attorney “with expertise in the negotiation of lease renewals and modifications,” to negotiate a lease renewal with the club. Over the last year, several members of the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee have argued that the club should be permanently closed and the land repurposed.

On Saturday, Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the town board’s acting liaison to the committee, would not comment as to whether that action would lead to a renewed lease with the gun club.

In his remarks to the committee, Chief Sarlo drew a distinction between the club over all and a standalone portion that is used exclusively by officers for training. That range is on the east side of the property, he said, “and the homes that are behind that are actually much closer than the homes that were involved in one or two of those incidents that are on the other side of the rifle range that’s part of the Maidstone Gun Club,” he said.

“We maintain our own section of the range,” he said. “We have a trailer, we have our own equipment, we do safety checks.” Between 90 and 100 people per year receive pistol training for mandatory requalification, among them 68 sworn officers, five to seven part-time officers, around 15 full-time and part-time Marine Patrol officers, and five or six court officers, he said. Typically, eight to 10 officers at a time are sent to the range for that training. “There’s a tremendous amount of safety oversight. Every round that is fired is overseen by at least two range safety officers. We take a lot of pride in the professionalism of our training officers and how much time and effort we put into safety.” A bullet has never left the range from the Police Department’s portion, he said, “and we’ve never had a call or an incident of anything occurring on our section of our range.”

But the club’s closure, now in its ninth month, is more than an inconvenience for police officers, he said. “We’re sending our officers up to Westhampton to use Southampton Town’s range” for training under a temporary agreement. “So if we have a barricaded subject, or we have an incident, they have to respond from Westhampton, and they’re not here in town.”

Further, “if someone misses a training date and we have to slide them in to a makeup date while they’re on the road working, they can go over to the Maidstone Gun Club, keep the radio on, go see a certified instructor, and get their qualification in. Paying them overtime to drive to Westhampton Beach and back for an eight-hour day plus travel time is a bit of an inconvenience, and it takes a long time to schedule, to train and work around the other departments’ schedules where we can get the time that we need that matches our schedule.”

Separately, officers must also complete annual rifle training, he said. “So we’re up there about 30 to 35, maybe 40 days a year. . . . I know there’s been some concern and question about whether or not we can just go to Southampton and move our operations there. We have a lot invested in using that portion of the [Maidstone Gun Club] range, and it’s an extremely beneficial service for us to be able to have here in the Town of East Hampton.”

Regarding the Police Department’s investigation, “we have a very clear and distinct task when we investigate and we’re looking for crime,” he said. “We’re looking to see if there is a criminal offense that can be charged under the penal law, and we presented our findings and a thorough investigation to the district attorney’s office. And there was no instance of a criminal act that would have led us to taking police action. So that’s the extent of our involvement in any investigations at the range,” he said, to the apparent frustration of some committee members. 

Asked what he thought would be a reasonable solution to the matter, the chief said that “it appears that the safety measures that were put in place and set up should have and could have been sufficient. And it appears that over time, without a sufficient inspection and maintenance plan in place, those waned and it was not acceptable anymore, to a point where I believe if some routine maintenance and inspection had occurred, the barriers at the end of that rifle range probably would have been sufficient to keep anything from leaving that range.”

In another development, the gun club’s June motion to modify the order temporarily shuttering it so that sound testing could be conducted was denied. An attorney for the club had written to Justice Christopher Modelewski seeking permission for the shooting of nine cartridges from the club’s rifle range, six of which would be “of the same caliber ammunition that was shot at the club’s rifle range in the early afternoon on August 5, 2022,” and the remainder from a 12-gauge shotgun from public property located between the club and the plaintiff’s residences, land that is apparently used by people for hunting and shooting.

The club, Justice Modelewski wrote on Sept. 1, “has not presented compelling or changed circumstances that would render continuation of the injunction in its present form inequitable.”

With Reporting by Christine Sampson




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