Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Monday his pursuit of a police commissioner to lead a department rocked by corruption and gang killings will include internal and external candidates, although he stopped short of calling it a nationwide search, which legislative leaders want.
Bellone, a Democrat, was criticized when he chose county District Attorney-elect Timothy Sini — a former federal prosecutor who was never a police officer — as police commissioner without looking at candidates from across the country. Bellone said he hopes to make a selection by early 2018, shortly after Sini begins his DA job.
“We’re going to cast a wide net. I’m not going to put any labels on it,” Bellone said in an interview Tuesday. “My top priority is to make sure that we select someone who is going to continue the extraordinary progress we’ve made over the last two years and build upon that. I want somebody of the highest integrity, someone with vision, and real leadership ability to put forward to the legislature.”
Bellone installed Sini as commissioner following the resignation of former Chief of Department James Burke, a Bellone appointee who is currently serving a 46-month sentence in federal prison for beating a suspect and orchestrating a cover-up. The Burke scandal led to federal obstruction-of-justice charges against then-District Attorney Thomas Spota and his top aide. Spota pleaded not guilty and resigned earlier this month.
While Suffolk has experienced some record crime drops in the past year, at least 17 people in the county have been killed at the hands of the MS-13 street gang since 2016. Still, the police department is on pace to record fewer homicides this year than in 2016. With about five weeks left in 2017, Suffolk has recorded 19 homicides, compared with a total of 34 in 2016, officials said.
Bellone said the next commissioner should have analytical and data skills to continue driving crime down and will be tasked with decreasing the department’s overtime costs. Last year, the department clocked a budget-busting, record $47 million in police overtime — $14.3 million more than the amount budgeted.
Bellone said police overtime this year was on a “positive trend,” but he did not provide specifics. The police department, which has 2,500 officers, has said it’s decreased the overtime growth rate.
DuWayne Gregory, presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, which is tasked with a confirmation vote on the commissioner pick, said he thought Bellone’s resistance to calling his process a nationwide search means “he probably has someone in mind. That would seem logical.”
Gregory (D-Amityville) said he was hoping for a “real search, not to go through the motions.” He cited a recent Newsday report, which showed that racial and ethnic minorities on Long Island were far more likely than whites to be arrested and incarcerated, as reason to consider an “outside perspective, who will bring about the change that needs to happen.”
Bellone stressed that he would exert independence in his selection and that neither Police Benevolent Association President Noel DiGerolamo nor Sini, who as district attorney will have the ability to investigate the police department, would have a say.
“He’s not going to have any direct role in the selection of police commissioner, ” Bellone said of Sini.
Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), who cited the lack of a sweeping search when he abstained from voting for Sini as commissioner, said on Monday Bellone had given assurances this time he would conduct an exhaustive search. McCaffrey, the GOP caucus leader, said he thought there was “plenty of talent inside” the police department.
“The likelihood we would find someone who wants to move to Suffolk County from California may be remote,” he said.
Both McCaffrey and Gregory said the $179,000 salary, eclipsed by many members of the brass and police officers alike, could be an impediment to hiring a new commissioner.
Asked whether he’d consider offering a higher salary, Bellone said it hasn’t come up.
The county spent between $9,000 and $10,000 in print advertisements for the job post, which will begin appearing in the next few days in local and national newspapers and on job recruiting websites, Bellone spokesman Jason Elan said. The deadline for applications is Dec. 21.