ELIZABETHTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — The 911 call from a white, off-duty police officer around the height of the George Floyd protests in early June sounded ominous: A group of Black youths had menaced him outside his upstate New York getaway, he said, sparking an exchange of gunfire between the officer and a member of the group.
What responding State Police troopers discovered caused the officer’s story to start unraveling. First, he was reportedly found asleep inside the camp home in Elizabethtown, located in the largely white Adirondacks region, after a night of heavy drinking. And, though he had indeed fired his weapon, there was no evidence anyone had fired at him.
Weeks later, what authorities think actually happened in the case of Cohoes Police Officer Sean McKown is still shrouded in secrecy.
State Police have refused to disclose any information about the incident, except to say that their investigation is closed. Nor has the agency explained why it didn’t seek charges against McKown, even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in the midst of approving legislation that would punish false 911 calls based on race.
Meanwhile, McKown’s police department is allowing him to retire from the force rather than face potential disciplinary measures that could cost him his pension.
Amid pressure from activists and community leaders, Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague has asked state police for the case file on McKown, though she also won’t discuss the case. A letter with more than 700 signatures was delivered to Sprague’s office last week, demanding a more aggressive response to the incident.
“It feels as though someone is trying to sweep this thing under the rug,” said Nicole Hylton-Patterson, director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative. “If it’s true that he made a false report that put the lives of these youths at risk, he should be charged and prosecuted.”
McKown, a 20-year veteran of the Cohoes Police Department and nephew of former Police Chief William Heslin, called 911 after midnight on June 6.
“A group of eight to 10 black males came around his property and words were exchanged after he questioned why they were on his property,” a dispatcher wrote in an internal Albany County sheriff’s office email obtained by The Times Union, of Albany, through a public records request. “They told him off. They then returned for round two, more words were exchanged to which at that point gunfire was exchanged between both parties. Sean is uninjured, however is waiting for State Police response as they are on another call.”
The Times Union, citing anonymous sources reported that when troopers arrived, a “highly intoxicated” McKown said he told the youths to leave before grabbing his service gun from his vehicle. He said a Black male lifted his shirt and displayed a silver gun in his waistband. McKown said after hearing what he thought was a gunshot, he fired four rounds and ditched his gun while retreating.
McKown later called police and acknowledged the story was a lie, the Times Union reported. This time he said that out of fear, he fired shots into a tree stump to scare off whoever had made the noise.
After viewing a neighbor’s security video, troopers also told McKown their investigation showed his weapon had been deliberately set down, not tossed away. As their questioning continued, McKown allegedly asked the troopers why they were trying to “jam him up,” the Times Union reported.
Matthew Melewski, an attorney in nearby Westport supporting the efforts, said at a news conference: “This is not a trivial matter. This is not a child pulling a fire alarm and falsely reporting a fire.”
In response to inquiries by The Associated Press, the State Police would only say the incident was reported and investigated but no charges were filed. It refused to immediately disclose written reports related to the incident, telling the AP it would need to apply for the records under the state’s open records law, a bureaucratic hurdle that could delay the release of the documents for months.
Sprague told the AP via email that she had made a “formal written request” for the investigation file before the outcry. But added, “I will not comment on any facts, potential witnesses or potential evidence.”
McKown, 46, has been allowed to take sick time until his retirement takes effect this month, Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler said in an interview.
“The conduct, if true, is in my opinion unbecoming of a police officer,” Keeler said. However, letting the officer retire was “the cleanest, easiest, fastest and most certain of an outcome,” he added.
In 2018, McKown was suspended without pay after pleading guilty to reckless driving after being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in rural Illinois.
A message was left at a cell phone number believed to be McKown’s. Efforts to reach him through a police union were unsuccessful.
Melewski said it appears that charges of falsely reporting an incident are warranted, and possibly more serious charges.
“It’s hard to know exactly why this investigation was stopped,” Melewski said in an interview. “It’s very disturbing that somebody decided to bury it.”