If it’s Wednesday, or any other day of the workweek for that matter, Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini must be having a news conference about something. Or making an appearance, somewhere. Or so it seems since the arrests earlier this month of MS-13 gang members on federal charges — some of them stemming from the brutal slayings of two Brentwood high school students.
Now, in conversation edited for space and clarity, he is here:
Q: The office of Robert L. Capers, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, took the lead in handling indictments against 13 MS-13 members. Since then, Capers, along with a slew of other U.S. attorneys appointed by former President Barack Obama, has stepped down at the request of U.S. Department of Justice officials. What impact will that have on Suffolk’s gang-suppression efforts?
A: I would hope none. Obviously any U.S. attorney coming in I would like to meet with and discuss the strategy we’ve been implementing since September. I would express my intent on continuing that strategy, which involves an all-out offensive on the streets by the Suffolk County Police Department, with officers assigned to particular gang members and then working with the FBI through the Long Island Gang task force and the U.S. attorney’s office to strategically support individuals for RICO prosecution.
Q: Three MS-13 members under the age of 18 also were charged as juveniles in separate federal cases, which are sealed. So there’s no way to know their immigration status — and Capers, during a news conference, said he could not comment on whether any of those arrested attended Brentwood schools. Still, community members have long complained about gang members — many of whom came into the United States without documentation as unescorted minors who were placed in Brentwood — in local schools. Is that an issue? And what can police do about it?
A: Let’s be clear: The vast, vast, vast majority of these children are law-abiding kids who are trying to make a better life for themselves as they come from unstable, war-torn countries. But certainly the individuals that we have been targeting for violent MS-13 activity, many of them have been folks who have come over through this [unescorted minors] program. We collaborate very closely with the Brentwood school district and we will continue to do so in terms of identifying and targeting violent MS-13 gang members. We will weed the bad guys out. And we are working very diligently with all of our stakeholders to get a gang-prevention program in the school district.
Q: U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said during a recent telephone town hall that he hoped to invite President Donald Trump to Brentwood to see the impact of gang violence. Have you heard from King or Trump?
A: No. But I will talk to the congressman about whatever he wants to talk about. The way I look at it is, is there any opportunity to get any additional [federal] resources? I would love to see more assistant U.S. attorneys stationed in Central Islip. Peter King could be a good advocate for more law enforcement resources, but if the president heard our strategy and saw the results that we are getting, I think it is an easy sell. It is an easy pitch.
Q: Of the 13 MS-13 members indicted earlier this month — all of whom live in Brentwood and Central Islip — 10 were in the country illegally. How do you handle policing in a largely Hispanic community where there are undocumented residents who are gang members and undocumented residents who abide by local laws?
A: It’s easy. They are not the same folks. We are going to be targeting gang members, whether they are legal or illegal. Those people are going to be targeted very aggressively in Suffolk County. And when you have your regular folks who are here in the community, living law-abiding lives, we are not in the business of acting as deportation officers. The reason is that it would compromise our mission of creating an environment in which people will come forward to law enforcement and report crimes and give us information about crimes.
Q: Can you clarify the department’s policy on reporting immigrants who are in the country illegally to federal authorities? Is Suffolk a sanctuary jurisdiction?
A: It certainly is not a sanctuary jurisdiction; that’s defined in statute as jurisdictions that refuse to provide information at the Department of Homeland Security’s request. We work with all of our federal law enforcement partners. With respect to people who interact with us because they’re witnesses, or victims who are merely asking for police assistance, we do not inquire into immigration status, obviously, because our mission is to protect and serve all residents regardless of immigration status. If we arrest you for a crime, misdemeanor or felony, and you are not here legally, we are going to notify Homeland Security upon arrest.
Q: Capers, in a statement earlier this month, noted MS-13’s continued efforts to expand “and entrench itself in our communities, both by sending gang members to illegally enter the U.S. from Central America, and by recruiting new members from our schools and neighborhoods.” Does that compound the police department’s work?
A: We knew the situation in Brentwood. We know where these people are coming from; we know why they are coming to Brentwood. And we’re talking about a few hundred gang members in Suffolk County. I have someone in our intel division spending 100 percent on MS-13. Short term, the goal is to solve all of the homicides; longer term it is to eradicate MS-13. And when I say that, some people say, ‘Are you being overly optimistic or overly aggressive?’ But we are not talking about thousands of people here, we are talking about hundreds. This is a doable job if everyone works together.
Q: What about all of your news conferences, interviews and public appearances? Are you laying a foundation for a run for Suffolk district attorney?
A: At this point I am not going to talk about that, but I promise . . . that when the time is right I will sit down with you.