Off-duty cop allegedly fired four shots after confronting Black youths in Elizabethtown

Officer and K-9 handler Sean McKown, with retiring K-9 Jeter, right, and Jeter's son and replacement Loky outside the Cohoes Police Station Wednesday Sept. 9, 2015 in Cohoes, NY. (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)

COHOES — On June 6, State Police in Essex County responded to a call of a supposed gunfight between an off-duty Cohoes police officer and a Black youth in Elizabethtown.

When they arrived, they found Officer Sean T. McKown, whose 911 call had summoned the response, asleep in his summer home and highly intoxicated, according to multiple sources familiar with the investigation. The 46-year-old McKown, who is white, told troopers that a Black youth had displayed a gun and fired at him, which had prompted him to fire his weapon four times while retreating up a hill before ditching the department-issued pistol out of fear the emptied gun would be used against him.

McKown, who allegedly told a neighbor he had suspected the young people of being in an Antifa group, went back inside and called 911.

The story, McKown would allegedly later admit, was false. State Police described his various statements as “extremely inconsistent.”

Seven weeks later, McKown has yet to face discipline for the Essex County incident — nor has he returned to work. Instead, McKown is out on sick leave and expected to retire in August.

The Times Union spoke with multiple people briefed on the incident as well as Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler, who said State Police and the Cohoes Police Department have investigated McKown’s conduct. The incident took place as protests were happening around the country following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. Essex County, which includes Lake Placid and Keene Valley, has not emerged as a hot spot for those protests.

Contacted at home on Monday, McKown declined to comment. In 2018, he was arrested for allegedly driving under the influence in rural Illinois. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and was suspended without pay; McKown was also sentenced to a month of court supervision.

In a statement Monday, State Police said the investigation into the Essex County incident had been closed with no charges filed.

The mayor, who acknowledged McKown had allegedly fired his weapon, stood by the decision to not suspend the officer. A former State Police officer for more than 30 years serving his first year as mayor, Keeler told the Times Union that “the incident under investigation involved alleged behavior unbecoming of a police officer. If proven true — and in combination with a highly publicized DWI arrest two years ago — I would not entertain the idea of that officer patrolling the streets of Cohoes again.”

Keeler said he conveyed that message on June 7, the day after the incident. He said McKown has used sick time since that date to deal with a health issue. McKown’s retirement becomes effective in two weeks, the mayor said.

People familiar with the June 6 incident on Lincoln Pond Road in Elizabethtown said Troopers responded to McKown’s 911 call. They arrived at McKown’s summer home to find him asleep. They noticed that McKown smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes.

Awakened, McKown told the troopers he had returned home from a gathering and saw a number of Black youths in the road in front of his home. Some were lifting phones, apparently seeking cell service. McKown said he asked the group what they were doing, and asked them to get away from his home and neighborhood.

He said he approached the youths two more times, the third time after grabbing his service gun from his vehicle. This time, McKown claimed, a Black male lifted his shirt and displayed a silver gun in his waistband. McKown said he heard a pop, which he believed was a gunshot fired at him. He said he fired four shots out of fear for his life and, after running out of bullets, ditched his gun while retreating.

McKown later called State Police and acknowledged that he had given them false and inaccurate information. When they returned to Lincoln Pond Road, the officer allegedly admitted the young man had not shot at him and claimed he had not fired his weapon while retreating.

Instead, McKown claimed that while he was behind his home he had heard a pop, and fired shots into a tree stump to scare off whoever had made the noise. He said he had ditched his gun because he did not want the youths to find it and use it against him. He allegedly claimed he had told the false story because he did not want to appear scared, though he had been.

After viewing security video from a neighbor’s home, troopers told McKown their investigation showed that his weapon had been neatly laid down, not ditched in a panic. As their questioning continued, McKown allegedly asked the troopers why they were trying to “jam him up.”

The troopers said McKown claimed he had not been intoxicated, though he claimed he did not recall making the statements he had made on the 911 recording.

The two males and a woman in the group whom McKown approached spoke to State Police, people with knowledge of the case said. They said McKown had asked them where they were staying, and other questions they did not want to answer. They later heard him on the phone describing what they were wearing. They said they did not feel threatened by McKown or see his weapon, but did feel harassed. They did not want to press charges.

State Police notified Cohoes police and met with Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague. On Monday, Sprague declined comment.

Keeler said there were two avenues the city could take, one being immediate suspension for 30 days with pay. In that scenario, hearings and arbitration could be a “good year-long process” in which the city would pay out McKown’s salary with no certainty of the outcome.

He said McKown’s retirement provides a “certain ending” for the officer’s two-decade career.

“So if these facts are true, then that would be the desired goal — separation of service,” the mayor said, “and the most certain way to get there, the easiest way to get there, the least expensive way to get there is the retirement route.”

“I’ve seen similar cases go both ways and, given the circumstances, taking that risk is not in the best interest of the people of Cohoes,” the mayor said.

McKown, the nephew of former Cohoes Police Chief William Heslin, was hired in July 2000. At the time, the hiring — and the contemporaneous hiring of the chief’s son — was met with criticism because they were not the top scorers on a civil service qualifying test.

He has worked as the department’s K9 or police dog handler. In 2015, former Mayor George Primeau honored McKown and his dog, Jeter, with a plaque for 10 years of service. Jeter’s son, Loky, replaced him as K9.


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