The Suffolk County Police Department, roiling from the departure and federal indictment of its former chief, is also stunned by the weak credentials of its proposed new boss.
County Executive Steve Bellone is repeating a disturbingly familiar pattern of failing to cast a wide net for a police commissioner. Instead, he’s selected someone with whom he is personally comfortable, rather than putting a priority on independence and distance from local political machinations.
Bellone started his first term in 2012 with a big mistake, selecting James Burke as chief of the nearly 2,500-member department. Burke had a depth of experience but a spotty record on integrity. Bellone put Burke in the No. 2 spot even before he had selected his commissioner, signaling that any potential candidate for the top job would be just a figurehead.
Federal prosecutors were investigating whether Burke assaulted a suspect who stole his gym bag from his car, and whether he and other officers tried to cover up the incident. Now, Bellone has to clean up the ethical mess Burke created and he is turning to Timothy Sini, deputy county executive for criminal justice. Bellone, who stood behind Burke until he became too radioactive, touts integrity as Sini’s primary qualification.
Sini, 35, is a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York’s Southern District, a prestigious prosecutor’s office. He is smart and has served Bellone ably in the past 14 months, especially on convincing the state that Suffolk did not need to build another jail. But he served as a federal prosecutor for only four years and six months. Before that he was a law clerk.
Sini has zilch experience in supervisory or managerial roles, but has been nominated to run a paramilitary operation, one of the largest departments in the nation. He’s never worn a badge nor had to fire a service revolver. He may do a fine job, but do we really want an untested commissioner at a time when threats of terrorism loom heavily over public safety?
Just as disconcerting is Sini’s closeness to Bellone and Richard Schaffer, chairman of the Suffolk County Democratic Party and supervisor of Babylon Town. Sini left the U.S. attorney’s office because he wanted to try his hand at elected office, and Schaffer gave him the opportunity to do just that. While working as an deputy to Bellone, Sini worked as a volunteer for Schaffer in community outreach efforts. Bellone and Schaffer then backed Sini to run for county legislature this fall against their archenemy, Republican incumbent Kevin McCaffrey. Their plan was to raise Sini’s profile countywide as a legislator, with the expectation that he could run a 2017 primary against incumbent District Attorney Thomas Spota, also a Democrat, or even chase Spota from the race.
But Sini lost the legislative race. Even so, on election night last month, Schaefer said he still had big plans for him. Now it seems that making Sini Suffolk’s top cop is the next grand idea to set him up for the Spota challenge. In a recent interview, Sini acknowledged to the editorial board that he would consider future elected office.
There are plenty of career prosecutors and top police officials Bellone could have selected to head a department that needs a strong, inspirational leader. But Bellone will never know who was best for the job because he never even looked.