Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini just last month called a news conference to tout a muscular display of force as part of his message to violent gang members in Brentwood.
“If you are an MS-13 gang member, take a look behind me,” Sini said then, gesturing to a police helicopter, armored SWAT vehicle, K-9 unit dogs and dozens of cops and recruits assembled picture-perfectly behind him.
“For every person here, there is 10 more,” Sini said.
“And we are coming for you.”
This week, MS-13 slapped back in the worst way possible, by slaughtering four young men — the youngest, 16 years old — in a community park, south of the soccer fields, in Central Islip.
And not just any park.
Last July, children had their faces painted, played on an inflatable slide, and listened to other young residents perform on a temporary stage not far from where the young men were found slain.
Suffolk police were a big part of that day, turning out in a very different show of force to talk to residents, and watch young adults slam around basketballs on the courts at the recreation center across the street.
But the brutality, the brazenness of this week’s attacks changed everything.
“This felt like it was a slap in the face to the police force,” said Margarita Espada, who, in September, had made her art center, Teatro Yerbabruja, available for a brainstorming session on gang violence plaguing Brentwood — where two high schools girls were beaten to death by MS-13 members — Central Islip and Bay Shore.
“This feels like a message that the gang is sending to the police, ‘You think you’re in charge? No, we are,’ ” she said. “And that is terrifying for us in the community.”
During a news conference Thursday, the first question was whether Sini thought gang members were sending him a message. The commissioner sidestepped a direct response, saying, “We have made tremendous progress, made hundreds of arrests. This is a long-term war.”
And now, it’s a war that’s left police to find bodies in two Suffolk towns — Islip and Brookhaven — and local victims from East Patchogue and Bellport, which lie beyond the border of Brentwood, where eight of 11 people now suspected of being slain by gangs since last fall lived. (The 11th victim was a visitor to Long Island from Florida, who was among those killed this week.)
Sini said police intended to keep the pressure on, working with the FBI as part of the federal agency’s Long Island Gang Task Force, and with the Eastern District of New York.
But is that enough? Are there other resources Suffolk needs? And what about the communities? And, especially, schools, which have been left to deal with gangs, including MS-13 members — who, Sini has said, came into the country illegally as unescorted minors and were placed in local communities?
There’s still a lot we don’t know about last week’s killings.
Were the victims associated with gangs? Were these planned executions, or an initiation? How many people did it take to beat and slash four men to death? Why the Central Islip park?
How were police, who, according to Sini, have been assigned to every known MS-13 member in Brentwood, tipped to the slayings? Were any of the victims, or their killers — who remain at large — students in local schools?
Such carnage is a lot for two towns, a suburban county and a region to grapple with, especially with suspected gang members bold enough to send a video of the victims’ bodies to one of their girlfriends — hours after Sini pledged during that news conference to solve the killings.
On Friday, Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), head of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, said she hoped to get a briefing soon from Sini. “He did a good thing by getting Suffolk back on the federal task force,” she said. “But I think that the gangs got a good foothold again when the previous chief, James Burke, took Suffolk out of that task force.”
And as for Sini, he was asked after last week’s news conference what he would say to residents in Central Islip, and beyond, jarred by a quartet of brutal slayings.
“We are going to keep the pressure on, we are not going to stop,” he said. “We are going to enhance our presence in this area so residents feel safe.”
And, thus, the war goes on.