Suffolk County Executive-elect Ed Romaine promised to bring his experience...

Suffolk County Executive-elect Ed Romaine promised to bring his experience and common sense to selecting a police commissioner. Credit: Barry Sloan

The search for a new police commissioner in Suffolk County presents the chance for a fresh beginning for both its much-criticized department as well as incoming County Executive Ed Romaine. This search — for what will be the fourth commissioner in seven years — should involve a wide and diverse pool of candidates culled from a national review that genuinely intends to make good on the oft-elusive promise of reform in Suffolk.

For decades, Suffolk taxpayers have supported one of the highest-paid police forces in America, yet have witnessed numerous scandals and poor handling of investigations that have undermined public confidence and cost taxpayers millions in litigation costs. This includes the department’s internal affairs unit’s investigations of improper actions by Suffolk cops themselves.

Republican Romaine campaigned as a better crime-fighter and advocate for public safety than his Democratic opponent. As a longtime public servant, Romaine promised to bring his experience and common sense to selecting a commissioner.

Yet so far, it remains disturbingly unclear just how thorough that review is going to be. Insiders in the Romaine camp insist the search by his transition team will be national in scope. However, in a recent interview, Romaine eschewed the idea of a national search favored by his predecessor, Steve Bellone, and expressed his parochial preference for someone within the department. “I’m not for that because I think leadership is needed now,” Romaine said. “What we will probably need is a localized search.”

This narrow approach is likely only to compound the longtime problem of adequate oversight for the Suffolk police department. A national search, if conducted properly, should provide the finest possible candidates who might bring new insights, innovative management, and an ability to build on genuine improvements the department has made in recent years, such as better minority community relations.

Romaine should also learn from the sorry experience of his predecessor. In a similar search 12 years ago, Bellone selected James Burke as chief of police, assuring skeptics that Burke's local knowledge would be invaluable. Instead, the choice proved catastrophic, leading to a long and grueling scandal that wound up with both Burke and then-Suffolk District Attorney Tom Spota convicted on federal charges. The whole affair left Suffolk law enforcement with an unfortunate stain on its reputation.

In deciding on a new police commissioner, the Romaine transition team is consulting with Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney’s office. That’s good. The DA and the police work together as professionals every day. But Tierney needs to keep a proper distance from the department as he is the one who would be prosecuting any cases of misconduct.

Only a true national search will help Romaine determine whether, in the end, any local candidate has the skills to provide the needed oversight and vision. Anything less may haunt Romaine for the rest of his tenure, just as it did with Bellone.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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