Sag Harbor Officer Looks Back

T.E. McMorrow
T.E. McMorrow

Thursday, June 28, after 32 years as a police officer, the last 30 with Sag Harbor Village, Sgt. Tom Pagano will change from his uniform into civilian clothes for the final time. “I’m just going to enjoy the summer,” said Pagano, 56, who will retire on Friday.

“My father was a cop, 20 years in the city. Worked in Brooklyn, Harlem,” Pagano said. “But I never wanted to be a cop,” he added, saying that, when he was young, he thought he would pursue a career in business. But, the police blue in his blood ran deep, and in the mid-1980s, he took the civil service exam in New York City to become an officer.

His first job was with the New York Transit Police. New York was a rough, dangerous, city at that time. “The AIDS epidemic began. The crack epidemic started,” he noted. In 1986, his first year on the force, there were 1582 murders in the city. That number would climb over the next several years, reaching a peak of 2245 in 1990.

That was then, this is now: last year, there were 290 murders in NYC, the least since 1951. “It’s the safest big city in the world,” Pagano said with some pride.

Back in 1986, though, it wasn’t. Pagano was assigned to the Tactical Patrol Force, a program designed to put “a cop on every train in the city,” he said. His beat was the midnight to 8 AM shift.

The train would pull into the station, and, he recalled, “When the doors opened, you looked, making sure nobody was getting murdered.”

He recounted his first arrest as an officer. “Robbery. It was Easter Sunday. Doors open up, I look out, there was a girl at the end of the platform screaming, ‘I just got robbed. I just got robbed.’” Pagano took off running. When he got to the end of the platform, he realized the suspect had escaped to the street. “I go up the stairs. Now, I’m in Brooklyn. I have no clue where I am.”

Pagano, who was living in Sayville at the time, called in the NYPD. He rode in a patrol car with the victim, who spotted the suspect. “She said, ‘That’s the guy,’ so, we arrested him. They gave me the collar. Sixteen hours of overtime. That was my first arrest.”

The story had a twist, though. It turned out, he said, “The girl was a prostitute, and he didn’t pay. I guess the case was dismissed.”

Pagano wanted a job closer to home, and he took, and passed, the Suffolk County civil service test. He was contacted by several departments, including Sag Harbor’s. “I had never heard of Sag Harbor,” he said. After a couple of interviews with Chief Joseph Ialacci and Sgt. Michael Salargo, Pagano was hired. He was sworn in on May 25, 1988.

Pagano joined the force two years after a major shakeup in the department, when John Harrington, who had been chief for 25 years, left the job. Replacing Harrington as chief was Ialacci.

“I want tickets and arrests,” Ialacci told Pagano and the other three officers hired with him. “We did what we were told,” Pagano said.

He recalled the old headquarters, at the same location as the current one on Division Street. “God, it was horrible,” he said. “No holding cells. There was a bench where you handcuffed prisoners. There were no interview rooms. No computers. Everything we did was typed out and hand written.” That building was replaced by the current modern headquarters, designed by Stott Architecture, in 2006.

He has made many arrests over the years in Sag Harbor, but, the first one will always stand out. It was on a charge of drunken driving. The elderly woman’s breath test produced a high reading. “It was my first DWI. Ah, she was horrible,” he said. “She was the worst one I’ve ever had, screaming obscenities and cursing.”

The pressure of doing the paper work for the DWI arrest, which takes an experienced officer well over an hour to complete, while being berated by the defendant, proved challenging. “I messed up the paper work, so bad,” he recalled. He was dressed down by the sergeant on duty the next day. “He said about the paperwork, ‘What’s this? You could wipe your nose with it,’ but he didn’t use the word nose,” Pagano said. “It worked out great. My paperwork for DWIs were great after that.”

Pagano described coming out to Sag Harbor as an officer as “reverse culture shock.” He had joined the force just in time to experience the 1988 summer season in Sag Harbor. It was a much busier workload than in the city, but a far different kind of workload. “Aided cases. There is a parking complaint. A guy mowing his lawn. A dog barking,” he said. These are the kind of calls he said he will not miss.

However, there also was professional police work to be done, the kind that results in arrests. Just a couple of weeks ago, Pagano made a traffic stop that resulted in the arrest of a Southampton man on felony cocaine possession charges. “He had a warrant out of Southampton Town,” he said. Pagano placed the man under arrest. Another officer, Robert Rozzi, began searching the car. “Something is not right,” Pagano recalled feeling. According to the police, they recovered 10 packets of cocaine concealed in a cigarette pack.

That feeling that “something is not right” often leads to arrests on more serious charges than the one that led to a traffic stop. “You pull over a guy. He’s nervous. You ask him, ‘Where are you coming from? What are you doing? Do you have anything in the car?’ You can get consent.” Frequently, the strong smell of marijuana will give an officer the probable cause to conduct a search, Pagano said.

While he won’t miss the barking dogs, he will miss his fellow officers. He feels a great comradery with them. But, at the same time, “all the guys I came on with are gone.”

When Pagano looks at the new, young men and women who have joined the department, he is reminded of his early days. “They seem like they are hungry out there. They want to write tickets, make arrests, like I did,” he said.

Of all his proudest accomplishments, it is his two daughters, Amber and Autumn Pagano, who are the apples of his eye. “They are the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

He has no immediate plans. “I don’t want to be committed to anything. I want to travel, eventually,” he said. In the meantime, he will see how the other half lives, summering on the East End, 2018.

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