Criminal Justice Reform

Discipline of our police shouldn’t be secret

Tim Sini smiling.

Last year, then-acting Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini said his department’s internal affairs bureau was flailing, and he pledged to fix it. Sini’s promise came weeks after James Burke, the chief of department, was indicted on a charge of assaulting a suspect and covering it up.

Sini was correct. Suffolk police officers cannot, according to their contracts, be disciplined for infractions unless a departmental charge is made within 18 months of an incident being reported. The county had hundreds of such cases exceeding that limit before Sini took over, according to the department. When Burke was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison last year, U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler said the former chief’s attempt to cover up what he had done “affected a whole police department.” Officers who cooperated with the U.S. attorney were reportedly allowed to plead guilty and retire without going to jail.

To change the culture of a freewheeling force where there was no fear of getting disciplined, the police department increased the staff of internal affairs from 16 people to 21. Spanish-speaking officers were added in response to the conviction of an officer shaking down immigrants for cash. The changes seem to be working. Not one complaint has aged past the 18-month deadline without being fully investigated since the changes were made.

The progress is good, but more must be done. The public deserves to know what offenses officers commit and what discipline is levied. The state legislative session ended last week without Albany lawmakers amending 50-a, the rule that keeps all police officer discipline under wraps.

The public needs to know that the bad officers are being held accountable. It’s not enough to hear that cases are being closed in a timely manner.