Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, twice now, has had a chance to cast a nationwide net for the best leadership possible for the county’s, police department — which, for a second time since 2009, has come under federal scrutiny.
Early in his first term, Bellone decided to build his department around a single man, former chief of department James Burke, who was put into place before Bellone selected a new commissioner.
It was an unusual move that prevented Commissioner Edward Webber, when he eventually was appointed, from choosing his own top uniformed officer.
Burke, who has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption-related charges, is gone from the department now.
According to sources, federal prosecutors have offered Burke a plea deal that would allow him to serve about five years in prison — rather than gamble on the chance of a longer sentence if convicted at trial of charges that he beat a prisoner and orchestrated a cover-up.
Things could get uglier as federal prosecutors continue to investigate law enforcement in Suffolk, including, ironically, a prosecutor in charge of the district attorney’s anti-corruption unit.
Such a state of affairs makes Bellone’s choice of new police department leadership crucial.
The logical route — given Bellone’s misfire on Burke — would be a transparent national search for a commissioner. But Bellone’s opting for another inside candidate, Timothy Sini, a former federal prosecutor and deputy county executive for public safety who in November lost his bid for a county legislative seat.
Is Sini, who has never run a department, police or otherwise, the best Bellone can muster?
Bellone says yes.
“Politically, it would have been the best decision to go with a national search,” Bellone said Wednesday.
But had he done so, Bellone said, Suffolk still would be screening commissioner candidates. Instead, with Sini as acting commissioner, the department already has rebuilt relationships with federal authorities.
“You search when you don’t have a candidate,” Bellone said. “I had the best person for the job right here.”
What if Sini had won the election and gone on to become a Suffolk lawmaker? “I’d be looking for his twin,” Bellone said.
On Thursday, Bellone will have to sell lawmakers on the administration’s position, as a legislative public safety committee considers Sini’s nomination.
Expectations are that Bellone’s already has votes enough to push Sini through committee, and next week, through the legislature.
For Bellone, that’s good politics — but for Suffolk, not the best way to pick the county’s next top cop.