DELMAR — Within 24 hours of being appointed Bethlehem Chief of Police, Gina Cocchiara had help painting her new office. She said it had gone without a fresh coat since Lou Corsi was sworn in more than 15 years ago.
The new chief used the activity as a team building exercise. The town’s first woman and openly gay chief rose up the ranks through a tumultuous environment where peers targeted her for being an ambitious career person. When Town Supervisor David VanLuven appointed her to the lead post, he said it was Bethlehem’s first step towards police reform.
Four detectives stepped to the task. A review of a police department surveillance video revealed the surreal sight of one walking into the office with a ladder, while another holding a paint tray; with their service weapons holstered at the waist.
In the days leading to her swearing in ceremony, Cocchiara described her promotion as a relief of pressure despite public criticism over the process that led to her appointment. She’s fielded questions over her personnel file — as recently as last month after an August request from District Attorney David Soares was reported in local newspapers. Advocacy groups protested the lack of inclusion in selecting the new chief. And, there’s the global push for reform that has had all police agencies answering to angry barbs.
Since taking her post in August, Cocchiara describes the morale in the department as good. There are at least a few within the agency who have said otherwise. Days after her office was painted, The Spotlight received an anonymous letter describing the date and times of the exercise, alluding to something improper.
Cocchiara’s appointment to chief was the first of several advancements within the department. Where the agency started the year with a chief, a deputy chief and a commander, the town was left with having to address the vacancy of its top two positions by July. Officers Chad Ferraro and James Corrigan were each promoted to sergeant in November. Officer Michael Berben rose to detective. Michael Cozzy and James Rexford were each named commanders a month before. The shift in personnel could factor into possible turmoil.
“Nobody was on overtime for painting,” Cocchiara said. “This is team building. We’re trying to make everybodys’ offices new, fresh. … Get people comfortable in their spaces and work together.”
According to time and attendance records obtained by The Spotlight, at least two of the detectives who painted Cocchiara’s office were on duty when painting took place on Aug. 27. Although Cocchiara said no overtime was used, one of the four detectives finished the pay period with at least 50 hours.
The annual base salary for a first-year detective in Bethlehem is $78,716, exceeding the $46,145 annual salary of the average Delmar resident according to BestPlaces.net. The town board is also scrambling to make up for a dearth in collected sales tax. Its proposed budget for next year will take $1 million from reserves to compensate while freezing built in raises for non-union employees.
“What’s below payscale?” asked a dismissive VanLuven. “If I see a piece of garbage on the floor, do I not pick it up because it’s below my payscale? No. I’d scrub the bathrooms if there was the need.”
With Town Hall closed due to the pandemic, VanLuven said he couldn’t excuse hiring an outside vendor to do the job. He said the town has a three-person maintenance staff, but with security clearance requirements to enter the police station, only one could have been used.
“There are a lot of allusions to mythical improprieties that have been flying around for awhile now,” VanLuven said. He commended his police chief for using the opportunity as a team building exercise. He said he was not concerned with on-duty employees painting the office. Employees often paint town facilities, he said. The Department of Public Works had recently done the same.
“I think it’s sad that rather than support a fine police officer who has been given an opportunity to lead, change and evolve the culture in this police department she is just being relentlessly torn down by people who would prefer to have not seen her promoted,” VanLuven said.
“It saddens me.”