This has been an up-and-down couple of weeks for Saugerties police chief Joseph Sinagra, who was placed on paid administrative leave by the town board during an emergency meeting held Wednesday, July 26.
On Wednesday evening, town council member Zachery Horton confirmed the news about Sinagra but declined further comment. Thus far, no details have been released by the town. It’s unclear whether there is a timetable associated with the administrative leave, or what specifically Sinagra is being investigated for.
Former town police chief Lou Barbaria, who last served in the role in 2012 prior to the merger of the town and village departments, has been hired as interim chief.
“Chief Barbaria will be returning to basically cover all bases while the potential investigation will progress,” said councilwoman Leeanne Thornton.
Thornton added that Sinagra would be on site for the last time on Thursday, July 27 to retrieve his personal belongings while the investigation unfolds.
“The timeline will depend upon the investigation,” Thornton said. “I can’t say that it’s going to be a 30-day suspension, but it’s a suspension until we get the clarity we need, and move forward from that point.”
On Monday, July 17, nine days before he was placed on administrative leave, Sinagra was sworn in as the 2023-24 president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police (NYSACOP) at the group’s annual conference in Albany in a ceremony during which supervisor Fred Costello spoke. Sinagra had previously served on the board of governors and executive board of NYSACOP. He had previously served as president of both the Mid-Hudson Chiefs of Police and Ulster County Police Chiefs Association.
During a meeting five days earlier, the town board voted unanimously — with Peg Nau absent — to enact a temporary hiring and promotion freeze on the SPD while reconciling issues brought forth in a report by state attorney general Letitia James’ Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office covering multiple complaints against officer Dion Johnson, including allegations of harassment and sexual assault.
“This seems like an extraordinary effort, but it is not,” said Costello during the July 12 meeting. “We have a little bit of housekeeping, and we need to get a perspective on what’s happening in our P.D. and get some clarity for the board moving forward. We’re making sure that we are able to put quality people into positions.”
The freeze is expected to remain in place until the town board has a chance to review the state report to determine how to proceed with hiring and promotions in the future.
The 14-page state report published July 7, maintains that the SPD referred complaints made against Johnson to the state attorney general, as required whenever an officer receives at least five complaints in a two-year period. After an investigation, the state concluded that Johnson was subject to disciplinary action by the SPD as a result of his alleged misconduct.
Johnson’s prior history with the Albany Police Department (APD), where he worked before to coming to Saugerties, was also reviewed by the state investigative unit. The report found that the SPD was not made fully aware of allegations that Johnson made untruthful statements about overtime eligibility between January and February 2020 at Albany,
After allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct by an anonymous member of the public and two female SPD officers, the SPD suspended Johnson for ten days and placed him on probation for one year; It was recommended that the department terminate Johnson’s employment and update its policies and practices regarding sexual misconduct and internal personnel investigations. “As an initial matter, we concur with the SPD’s determination that his admitted actions violated SPD policies on Unbecoming Conduct, Neglect of Duty, and Leaving Post.
“We also conclude that it is more likely than not that Officer Johnson engaged in nonconsensual physical contact with Complainant #1 and that he was not truthful during his sworn interview with the SPD investigator,” continued the state report. “While it is difficult to determine with certainty exactly what transpired between Officer Johnson and Complainant #1, particularly given her decision not to provide an in-person statement to either the SPD or the OAG, we found the telephonic and email statements that she made both to the OAG and SPD to be credible, consistent over time, and supported by the video and images that she provided.”
Johnson’s accounts of the allegations by the civilian and two female officers differed greatly, but the state report disagreed.
“Based on these acts, we conclude that Officer Johnson engaged in a pattern of misconduct with respect to Complainant #1, Officer #1, and Officer #2 in violation of SPD policies prohibiting sexual harassment, unbecoming conduct, neglect of duty, and leaving post,” read the report. “Given the pattern of misconduct regarding Complainant #1 and Officers #1 and #2, we recommend that Officer Johnson be subject to termination, which would be consistent with recommended sanctions at other agencies.”
On Thursday, Thornton said the LEMIO report was a primary motivator for Sinagra’s suspension.
“It’s very disappointing to know that it’s come to this, but after the attorney general’s report came out, it basically led to a lot of questions for us as a board,” she said. “And we’ve had multiple meetings to discuss options with our attorneys. This just seemed, until we get clarification on all of the specifics that are involved with the case, that this was the best course of action to take so that there would be, let’s say not a police department in turmoil, but that it would be the best thing to do.”
Sinagra could not be reached for comment.