It was a few minutes before midnight on a cool mid-August Monday in what had been, until then, an unrelentingly hot summer. East Hampton Town Police Officer Vincent Rantinella got into the patrol car he’d been assigned for that night. He was on the 11:15 p.m. to 7:15 a.m. shift.
The work schedule for a police officer is a grueling one: Four consecutive days working from 7:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., one day off, then five straight days working from 3:15 p.m. to 11:15 p.m., two days off, and then the overnight shift for four straight days, followed by four days off. East Hampton is no different from the rest of America; police are needed around the clock.
Officer Rantinella is married. “I’ve known Christin since high school,” he said. “It’ll be seven years.” The Rantinellas have a son, Christopher, who is about to turn 3.
The car he was assigned that night was his favorite in the department’s fleet. Called the highway car, it lacks the bar of emergency lights normally seen on the roof of a police car, and has regular New York State license plates rather than the special police plates most of the fleet’s cars carry. These differences make it impossible for drivers to realize it’s a police car until it passes them by. POLICE, it says on the sides.
The car is loaded with gear. Besides the radio, computer, and scanner for fire and ambulance calls, it is equipped with a radar system to track exact speeds of oncoming vehicles. Yes, you read that right: oncoming. It works on a single ping of radar, at the press of a button, making it impossible to detect by speeding drivers half a mile away.
It also has two license plate readers on the back of the car that instantly identify plates belonging to unregistered or uninsured cars as they pass by.
All useful devices, but Officer Rantinella also keeps a notebook, in which he makes hourly entries. “Everyone does it their own way. I try to put it in every hour.”
“Amagansett to Springs. Pretty big sector,” he said of the area he’d be covering that night. According to his supervisor, Sgt. Daniel S. Roman, there would normally be seven or eight cars on the road during the overnight shift.
The prediction proved true. As the officer drove south from the town force’s main headquarters on Wainscott Northwest Road, then east on Montauk Highway, there was almost no traffic.
It was after midnight. He drove through the village of East Hampton, then through Amagansett. Even the Stephen Talkhouse was dead.
Officer Rantinella is considered one of the town’s top enforcers of the laws against driving while intoxicated. He was honored on March 13 for his work by the Suffolk Legislature, with Legislator Jay Schneiderman presenting him an award naming him a “top cop” for making the most D.W.I. arrests in the town over the past three years.
Early on the morning of May 28, 2011, a Saturday, the officer had a first-hand experience with an intoxicated driver that only added to his determination on the job. “I worked an afternoon shift, which is 3 to 11 p.m., and then on that particular night, had the opportunity to stay after to do D.W.I. enforcement, so I stayed after, from 11 to 3, then I left, it was about 3:15.”
He paused to make a U-turn at the darkened Lobster Roll on Napeague.
“I was on Middle Country Road,” continued the officer, who lives UpIsland. “The road was divided. Instead of going to the right, the other driver went to the left. There was a grass median. He was driving east in a westbound lane.”
The two cars collided head-on.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was able to get out of the car. I knew I was hurt, I couldn’t stand up, I was lying in the road. [The other driver] was trapped in his car. They had to cut him out.”
The other driver was drunk, and had already been convicted once of D.W.I. He is now serving time in prison.
Officer Rantinella suffered a fractured heel, a fractured sternum, and multiple lacerations to his legs and the back of his head. He made a full recovery, returning to duty in February.
As he drove west across Napeague in the dark, a car approached. He pinged it. Radar 69 popped onto his screen. The car zipped past, the driver tapping the brakes after passing the police car.
The officer made a U-turn, allowing the eight-cylinder Crown Victoria to accelerate slowly, watching the reaction of the speeding motorist. He flicked his emergency lights on, and the car pulled over. It had taken about 30 seconds.
Officer Rantinella, flashlight in hand, interviewed the driver, then returned to the patrol car with her license in his hand. “She’s a Montauk girl,” he said, who was heading home after baby-sitting. He ran her license, which came up clean, and sent her on her way with a warning.
As he started back west, he spoke about a D.W.I. arrest he’d made the night before.
“I could smell the alcohol. She had a passenger. The passenger had been drinking. Now what am I smelling? Am I smelling alcohol from this guy or her? So I just started talking to her, more to feel her out about it. Then, once I kind of knew, I said, ‘How much have you had to drink tonight?’ ”
It is a pivotal question, and not an arbitrary one. There must be probable cause for an officer to conduct sobriety tests. “At this point, you have reason to believe that it’s going that way,” said Officer Rantinella. “Like that girl I just stopped, there was no reason for me to even consider it. It’s not like ‘Oh, while we’re here, can you just blow into this?’ ”
He turned right onto Abraham’s Path. All was quiet. “Like a winter’s night,” he said.
“I love the job, but the schedule’s rough. I don’t mind working these hours, but for some guys, the night shifts are rough, real hard for them. You’ve got to be able to rest during the day. If you can’t sleep during the day, you’re going to have a real problem.”
From headquarters, the radio dispatcher called out a 911 hang-up alert, giving the location of the call as Springs-Fireplace near Abraham’s Path and assigning the call to Officer Lisa Notel, who was patrolling the Wainscott area.
Officer Rantinella was already there. He radioed in to take the call.
“These happen all the time,” he explained. A 911 hang-up call usually occurs when a cellphone in a back pocket hits the emergency-call button, but each call must be investigated. “Even if the dispatcher has the number and they call back and ask, ‘Is everything okay?’ and the person says, ‘Yeah, I dialed it by mistake.’ ”
Officer Rantinella spent the next 10 minutes carefully checking the address given, as well as the surrounding area, using the powerful searchlight on the driver’s door. As in almost every 911 hang-up, he found nothing.
It was almost 2:30 a.m. He turned onto Fort Pond Boulevard, headed west. There was a car coming toward him, slowly, about a half mile away, with its high-beam lights on. The driver passed the officer, never adjusting the bright headlights.
“I should check this,” Officer Rantinella said, making a U-turn.
The driver of the other car, a green sedan, reached Springs-Fireplace Road and turned right. It took the officer about 15 seconds to get to the intersection. He too turned right. There was only darkness.
He headed south along the road, stopping after a quarter mile. The green sedan appeared to have gotten away.
“He saw me turn around. He made a right. I guarantee you he’s in a driveway.” Officer Rantinella started back toward Fort Pond Boulevard, checking each driveway with the swiveling searchlight.
“It wasn’t anything crazy. But when someone does that, there’s something going on. The guy knows he wasn’t speeding. He was crawling. Probably nervous.”
Suddenly, through the hedges, there was a momentary, barely visible flicker of red, a brake light in the dark.
“There it is.”
He pulled into the driveway behind the green sedan and switched on the police lights, radioing his location to headquarters.
“Now,” he said, getting out of the highway car. He interviewed the woman at the wheel, who opened her door part-way. Through the door, he could see the two passengers. There was a strong smell of alcohol in the car. The passengers seemed drunk, but what about the driver?
She told the officer that the house at the end of the driveway belonged to friends she was staying with, but that she didn’t want to disturb them. The officer told her he would knock on the door for her.
Now her story changed. She was lost. She gave the officer an address several miles away.
He returned to the patrol car, pulled out the roadside breathalyzer, and walked back to the green sedan. He had the woman get out of the car and began a sequence of sobriety tests, starting with the Nystagmus test — asking her to follow the movement of a pen in front of her eyes without moving her head. The heel-to-toe test followed and then the raised-foot test. The woman performed all of them with difficulty.
He had her blow into the breathalyzer. The reading was .12, one and a half times the legal limit.
Officer Notel arrived. She would deal with parking the sedan on the side of the road, as well as finding the two passengers a taxi to get them where they were going.
Officer Rantinella headed back to headquarters with the handcuffed driver in the back seat. The mundane business of processing the prisoner, then doing the detailed paperwork required for a D.W.I. arrest, would take about three hours. Another member of the force would go on patrol to cover for him during that time.
“Every time I do one of these I get a little better,” he said. “I learn a little more.”
He’d be off for the next four days — four days to spend with his family — then back to the top and start all over again.