Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
He may only be commissioner-in-waiting, but in recent weeks, Tim Sini has become the public face of the Suffolk County Police Department.
With TV cameras rolling, Deputy Commissioner Sini walked Gilgo Beach, where the scattered parts of 10 bodies were found five years ago, the crimes still unsolved. This week alone, he showed up to inspect vandalism at St. Jude Roman Catholic Church in Mastic Beach, visited West Babylon High School, where 34 students and staff were treated for noxious fumes, and met with Muslim leaders seeking to build ties to combat terrorism.
Critics worry the tack is similar to the playbook Sini used this past year as a Bellone aide who was repeatedly put before cameras to boost his profile in what turned out to be a close but losing bid to become a county legislator in November.
But Sini, 35, who will need a majority vote in the Suffolk Legislature early next year to be confirmed for the $165,000-a-year commissioner job, said there is no politics involved. “It’s important for the public to know the good things the department is doing,” he said.
Sini was even more emphatic “there’s no place for politics in the police department,” vowing he will make personnel decisions “to put the right person in the right spot for the right reason . . . on merit and merit alone.” He added police unions will “not have any undue influence.”
Despite suggestions among pundits that he is being groomed for a future campaign to force out or take on District Attorney Thomas Spota in a primary, Sini said, “I would not challenge Tom Spota. I have no interest in doing that . . . my focus is on leading the police department.”
Yet while Sini and his boss, County Executive Steve Bellone, have focused on moving the department forward, federal Judge Leonard Wexler underscored the depth of county police woes a week ago by citing “the corruption in the entire department,” caused by indicted former chief James Burke’s alleged beating of a suspect and the subsequent cover-up.
However, Sini said the idea “that the whole department is corrupt is not accurate,” and such talk is a disservice to the “hardworking men and women of the Suffolk County police.” He said allegations deal with “a discrete group of individuals” who ”engaged in a cover-up and abuse of power by virtue of their position of incredible influence over the department.”
But Sini is cautious in talking directly about Burke. Although he said he has met with more than 150 officials as part of his “top to bottom” review of department operations, his initial assessment is there has been “a lack of confidence in some of the personnel decisions” Burke made, as well as damage to morale and concerns about transparency. He said he expects significant personnel changes, but more due to retirements and promotions than issues connected to corruption.
Sini, who began work for the county long after the beating incident, also said he had “no indication of any Burke wrongdoing during his 18 months as Bellone’s chief law enforcement aide. While he worked closely with the department on numerous law enforcement issues,” Sini said, “I was not embedded there.”
While some have criticized his youth and inexperience, Sini said he has a “fresh perspective” as someone from outside the police department, as well as the experience of a prosecutor who has won criminal cases and led interagency investigations. He added his county work has given him knowledge of the local landscape.
Some things Sini will not talk about: the conversations he and Bellone had that led to his nomination. He said, “It’s not an opportunity I would have anticipated too long ago.”
He also declined to say whether a departmental internal affairs investigation has begun into the alleged Burke cover-up. Sini would only say he remains in “constant contact” with the U.S. attorney’s office, and “appropriate action is being taken.”