Saratoga Springs Public Safety Commissioner James Montagnino has inappropriately inserted himself into a criminal case. He has compromised an ongoing investigation by going to the press. He has taken action against the senior-most female officer in the Police Department in a move that could likely result in her termination as he gets to choose the hearing officer who will decide her fate. He has struck yet another blow against the morale of his department.
Background: The Precipitating Incident
The incident that precipitated the case that has led to all these actions by the Commissioner took place on February 28, 2022. This account of the incident is based on information from multiple reliable sources. Although none of my sources were present at the event, the information they gave me was consistent.
A teenage party involving underage drinking took place at a local home. One of the participants, a white kid, had a cell phone with a blue flag sticker that is the symbol for “back the police.” Another youth of darker skin who has been described to me as possibly of Iranian or maybe Algerian descent took exception to the sticker and accused the person with the phone of being a racist. He shoved the white kid with the phone who then shoved him back causing him to fall and hit his head on the counter behind him. It was alleged to me that the kid with the phone never struck the fallen person again. Two other boys are alleged to have struck the victim on the floor.
The issue of assessing guilt in this altercation is complicated by the problem of determining which blows caused which injuries. The chaos of these kinds of fights involving kids fueled by alcohol often leads to conflicting eye-witness accounts and adds to the difficulty of determining who is culpable for what.
The patrol officer who investigated the incident recommended that a charge of harassment be brought against the youth who knocked the boy down. He consulted his sergeant who agreed with the charge and recommended it to the lieutenant in charge of the investigation. The lieutenant is the highest-ranking female in the department. She agreed with the assessment but nevertheless kept the investigation open.
At some point in early March, the parents of the youth who was injured went to the police department to complain about the incident. They then went on to meet with Commissioner Montagnino.
Commissioner Montagnino Acts
On Thursday, March 31, 2022, Commissioner Montagnino summoned the lieutenant in charge of the investigation to his office. He instructed her to raise the charge against the youth from harassment, which is a violation, to assault, which is a criminal offense and a misdemeanor. My understanding is that it was a directive and not a consultation.
I am told that the Police Department policy is that a harassment charge is used when an incident does not involve serious injury. A black eye or a split lip under this definition would not rise to assault. A more serious injury such as a broken limb or a damaged eye would constitute an assault. Who instigated the fight is also factored into the decision on what charges to bring.
Numerous sources report that the lieutenant declined Montagnino’s order to change the charge and asserted that she reports to the Chief of Police and not to the Commissioner. I am told, but cannot verify, that she told Montagnino, “James, I do not report to you, I report to the chief” and that he responded by telling her that in the future she was to refer to him as the “Commissioner” and that she “F#ing works for him” and that she was being insubordinate.
Montagnino later summoned the lieutenant again to a meeting and this time told her that he was pursuing disciplinary action against her. She could resign or she could take administrative leave pending a hearing regarding charges of gross incompetence and insubordination which, if found to be true, could result in her termination. Montagnino gets to appoint the hearing officer who would hear the case.
For as long as anyone I know can remember, no Public Safety Commissioner has interfered in a criminal case being investigated by the police. As politicians who must run for election, Commissioners are very much subject to pressure from constituents. The last thing this city needs is a Public Safety Commissioner helping out donors, party bosses, or anyone else with an interest in the outcome of a criminal matter.
I have no idea what Commissioner Montagnino’s relationship is with the parents of the youth involved in the case of a drunken altercation at a teenage party. What I do know is that he should not have met with them to begin with, and most importantly, he should not have interfered with the ongoing investigation.
Violating these norms is an invitation to cronyism and corruption.
Montagnino Makes a Disturbing Public Relations Move
In an effort to get ahead of the story, Montagnino, as is his practice, contacted WYNT television (Channel 13) about the case. Montagnino has appeared frequently on WNYT. He was able to dominate two stories over two days on his criticism of the handling of this case.
As this is an ongoing investigation (as of this writing no one has been arrested and the investigation is continuing) it was shockingly inappropriate for Montagnino to be discussing this case publicly in the media. Normally, the standard protocol is to respond to inquiries by the media in a case like this by saying, “this is an ongoing investigation, and we cannot comment on it at this time.”
In addition, though, Montagnino went on to make a particularly disingenuous, reckless, and irresponsible statement suggesting race played a role in what charges the lieutenant decided to bring in the case.
“One of the aspects of the case that I find deeply troubling is that all of the other participants were White. The victim, himself was the only African American involved in the situation. I hope, I truly hope that racial animus played no part in the decision (to) not assess this as a crime,” said Montagnino. [technically harassment is a violation and a violation is not considered to be a “crime”]WNYT April 1, 2022
While Montagnino did not name the officer who decided the charge, the word was already out about the action he had taken against his lieutenant. Raising the specter of racism allowed him to establish a narrative that would work in his favor and against the lieutenant. He qualified his ugly accusation to WNYT with the smarmy phrase “I truly hope that racial animus played no part…”
It is important to note that the lieutenant is a twenty-one-year veteran of the police force. She rose from patrol officer to Lieutenant during those years. I spoke to Chris Mathiesen who served two terms as the Commissioner of Public Safety. He was appalled to learn of Montagnino’s actions. He told me that during his tenure he promoted her to sergeant. He described her as an outstanding police officer whose record during his term was unblemished. Others have given her similar accolades.
The District Attorney
In the system of justice in New York State, it is the county District Attorney who prosecutes criminal cases, and it is the District Attorney in the end who decides what charge to pursue.
In that context, given the disparity between Montagnino’s assessment of the case and that of his lieutenant, I am told by several attorneys, that the prudent route for Montagnino to have taken would have been to discuss the case with the District Attorney.
Montagnino’s failure to engage the DA could be considered either an unfortunate oversite or a conscious strategy to avoid a contrary opinion. Either way, it speaks badly for him that he failed to consult the DA but instead went straight to the media.
Ignoring The Chain Of Command
I have no direct knowledge as to what if any consultation Montagnino had with Police Chief Shane Crooks before taking his action in bringing serious charges against the lieutenant. What is clear is that rather than working through the existing chain of command, he circumvented his police chief and for whatever reason chose to deal with the lieutenant directly.
The city charter gives the Public Safety Commissioner extremely broad authority. Technically, it was within his authority to bypass the police chief, but the implication is that he did not have confidence in his Police Chief to carry out a proper review.
Anyone with organizational experience would understand that this sends a message to Montagnino’s officers and the entire force that the Chief has lost his confidence (if the Chief ever enjoyed that confidence).
Organizationally, this was a very damaging management decision.
An Extremely Damaging Precedent
The city charter gives the Commissioner of Public Safety extremely broad powers of civilian control over the Police Department. It states that the Commissioner shall have “jurisdiction, supervision, and control of the governance, administration, disposition, operation, and discipline of the Police Department and its officers subject to section 6.1 of this charter.” [Title 6] Section 6.1 states that “the police department of the City of Saratoga Springs shall be under the general control and management of the Commissioner of Public Safety.”
While commissioners enjoy this kind of broad authority according to the charter, previous officeholders have refrained from interfering in criminal investigations.
If this is how Commissioner Montagnino is going to operate, he is going to be very busy meeting with people seeking to affect charges involving themselves or their family members or friends.
What I want in the Commissioner of Public Safety is someone who if approached about a particular criminal investigation tells the parties, “I am sorry, but it would be inappropriate for me to intercede in an investigation. If you have important information about an ongoing case I urge you to take it up with the officer overseeing the investigation.”
A History of Alleged Misogyny Plagues Montagnino
Montagnino’s interference in a case led by the highest-ranking female in the Saratoga Springs Police Department and the charges he has brought against her that could lead to her dismissal has reminded those who know his history of some unfortunate incidents in his past.
For a number of years, Montagnino served as a “special referee” in Westchester, New York overseeing divorce proceedings. He was the subject of a number of complaints by women over what they characterized as his bias against them.
A story that appeared in the New York Post (not my favorite newspaper), seemed to add credence to their claim. Referring to women seeking divorce settlements he gave students the following advice.
At a 2004 Pace Law School lecture, Montagnino warned lawyers to “beware of the 10583 Syndrome,” a reference to posh Scarsdale’s ZIP code.
“The 10583 mentality . . . says that ‘I’m entitled and I ought to be able to get the house, I ought to be able to get support . . . I ought to be able to live with my son’s drum instructor happily ever after and it all should be on his dime,’ ” he (Montagnino) said.New York Post April 10, 2006
Unfortunate remarks that are on the record.