Driving with a suspended license or registration these days is surprisingly easy for cops to catch. Uber is both beneficial to the village and an annoyance to its police force. The 20-mile-per-hour speed limit on most village roads is tricky to adhere to, even for the police. And Sag Harbor is a very, very different place than it used to be 30 years ago.
These are some of the lessons learned during an overnight ride-along on Saturday with a veteran Sag Harbor police officer, Sgt. Thomas Pagano, who will retire later this year after about 32 years with the department.
The ride-along was at once an opportunity to get to know Sgt. Pagano, who has received the department’s award for being “Top Cop for DWI Arrests” multiple times, and to get an inside look at the inner workings of the Sag Harbor Police Department and a close-up of Sag Harbor during Memorial Day weekend, considered by many to be the official kick-off of the summer.
Over the course of five hours, from 9 p.m. on Saturday to 2 a.m. on Sunday, Sgt. Pagano made stops that ranged from simple — like closing the outside door to Apple Bank, which he saw had been propped open — to more complex — like pulling over a driver who first paused on the side of the road, then drove away, then finally stopped after being pulled over a second time.
“My objective is to get a drunk driver or someone who is doing something really egregious,” Sgt. Pagano said around midnight. “We’re trained to make sure everyone’s paying attention to the rules of the road. When you pull someone over, you never know what you’re going to get.”
In the case of that driver, it was an out-of-state visitor who had been observed running a stop sign at Main Street and Bay Street. When the driver finally stopped, she said she drove away at first because she wasn’t sure it was she who was being pulled over. She received a ticket.
Most of the Sag Harbor Village Police Department’s cars are equipped with automated license plate reader systems, which capture images of vehicle tags and instantly retrieve their owners’ information from a state database. It’s almost hypnotic to watch, and fairly jarring when it sounds an alarm for a suspended license or registration. Sgt. Pagano noted it’s more likely a driver will be caught for these violations in the daytime, and said a vehicle has to be in motion for its driver to get in trouble. When the system picks up parked cars — which it did twice on Saturday night — the officers can’t do much.
The cars also have a radar detector that checks speed, of course. It comes in handy in Sag Harbor, where most of the streets have a speed limit of 20 miles per hour. Which, even Sgt. Pagano says, is tough to stick to sometimes.
Sgt. Pagano complimented the work of the village’s traffic control officers, who often work in tandem with the police and do the often-tougher, day-to-day work in the field that frees up the police to deal with calls for help.
“They do a good job,” he said. “They’re vital to us.”
Drivers repeatedly made illegal U-turns over the center lines on Main Street — five of them, to be exact — and got pulled over every time. One was in a Maserati. Three were Uber drivers. And as 2 a.m. approached, a handful of Uber drivers were grouped outside of Murf’s Tavern and Back Page on Division Street, waiting on both sides of the road to pick up their callers and thereby creating a hazardous situation, Sgt. Pagano said.
At one point, he briefly conferred with two other officers on Long Wharf.
“You see all the Ubers that are around now?” said Officer Nick Samot.
“I’d rather have that than a fatality,” replied Sgt. Pagano, who made 16 of Sag Harbor’s 43 DWI arrests last year.
But on Saturday night, he didn’t make any DWI arrests. “Everyone’s being relatively good,” he said.
Just before 10 p.m., Sgt. Pagano flashed a bright light into the parking lot at Washington Street and Division Street. Nothing. “We’ve had kids doing things with drugs in this parking lot,” he said.
Early on, the village was bustling with the after-dinner crowd buzzing about the village. It thinned as it grew later, of course, but even with a few dozen cars left on Main Street after midnight, Sgt. Pagano observed it was “quieter than usual” for Memorial Day weekend. He predicted, based on his experience, that Sunday of the holiday weekend would be busier.
When Sgt. Pagano was first hired in May of 1988, a former New York City Transit officer who had received inquiries from both the Nassau and Suffolk county police departments in addition to Sag Harbor, tickets were hand-written. He had a revolver with six shots back then; now, his car is equipped with an AR-15. (“Don’t worry, it’s secure,” he said.) There are computers for paperwork now, the cars are much better and some laws have been updated, including a much lower legal limit for blood alcohol content.
“If you know the laws, then you know how to do the job,” Sgt. Pagano said. “What we do hasn’t changed.”
He said he has enjoyed the freedom of police work, as compared to other careers where employees sit at a desk most of the time, and would have worked five more years. But when an attractive retirement option was presented by the village administration recently, he couldn’t pass it up.
“Realistically, I’m happy I became a police officer,” he said. “It was a great career, a great job. Where did 32 years go? It went by so fast.”
Sgt. Pagano recalled the salty days of Sag Harbor past, back when bars and nightclubs outnumbered restaurants and ice cream shops, back when the police station “looked like an old clam bar.”
“It’s not as crazy as it used to be,” he said. “You think it’s busy now? It was so much busier in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. It’s definitely a nicer town now.”