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Big jobs ahead for new Suffolk police commissioner

Tim Sini, then Suffolk County Deputy for Public

Tim Sini, then Suffolk County Deputy for Public Safety, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Feb. 27, 2015. Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Acting Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini likely will be confirmed as the permanent leader of the department tomorrow by the county legislature. While some legislators, community activists and this page supported a national search to find the best possible leader for the scandal-torn department, it’s clear that County Executive Steve Bellone has no interest in such a process.

Now the question is how well Sini, 35, can run this 2,500-officer department after the arrest of former top uniformed officer James Burke on federal charges that he beat a suspect and orchestrated a cover-up.

Bellone should never have put Burke, who had a spotty record on integrity, in that position in 2012. And he certainly shouldn’t have kept Burke as long as he did. That Burke, a favorite and former employee of District Attorney Thomas Spota, got and kept that job almost until he was arrested on Dec. 9 shows how dark and tangled the politics of the county are. Sini’s mentors — Bellone and Babylon Town Supervisor and county Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer — are, or were, part of that scene. Sini must steer clear of it.

A former federal prosecutor with no firsthand experience in policing, Sini will take over a department with a culture of protecting cops at any cost. Burke is accused of beating a man who stole items from his car. What’s most disturbing is the alleged cover-up. Numerous officers apparently knew what happened and either lied to hide it or did nothing.

It wasn’t an isolated incident. In 2011, two Suffolk homicide detectives got a now-discredited confession out of a hospitalized, drugged cabbie who was shot by a drunken off-duty Nassau cop in Huntington Station. Both have since been accused of coercing other confessions. Neither has been fired. And in Suffolk, none of this is surprising.

Of 57 officers in the department with the rank of captain or above, only one is black and only two are women. There are far too few minorities and Spanish speakers on the force. That hurts the county’s ability to fight crime and its ability to gain the trust of many residents.

Thus far, Sini has done well, both as deputy county executive for criminal justice and since November as acting commissioner. He has begun to repair relationships with federal law enforcement that Burke destroyed, and he’s begun to show he won’t be the lap dog of the police unions. And in response to the concerns of legislators, he’s made a concerted effort to bust drug houses, and he has reached out to minority communities. Even some legislators and officials who think Sini got this job too easily say he’s doing it pretty well.

Sini says he’s committed to the job and promised us he won’t run for district attorney in 2017, which had been Bellone’s plan for him. That’s good, because Sini must turn around this department in a county where crime rates are low but faith in the police, in some quarters, is lower. Sini must constantly demand that all officers live up to the highest ethical standards, and he must tear down a secretive and self-protective culture. We need a force that reflects the county’s population, earns the county’s respect and meets the county’s needs.

Sini soon will have the job, and he must prove he can do it.

— The editorial board