Suffolk police commissioner Timothy Sini reflects on first year
At 36, Timothy Sini is the youngest commissioner in the Suffolk County Police Department’s history an appointment that some viewed with skepticism.
But the former federal prosecutor, now finishing his first official year as commissioner, also is a fresh face for a department still trying to improve its tarnished image after the guilty plea and imprisonment of its former top uniformed cop, James Burke.
The department faces other challenges, too: Despite a historic drop in crime last year, Sini’s first year saw a 36 percent spike in homicides largely driven by a rash of gang-related killings in Brentwood. And he inherits the still-unsolved Gilgo Beach murder investigation.
He’s never been a cop, but even longtime officers in the 2,499-member department one of the largest in the nation are praising Sini for his initiatives and his willingness to listen and learn.
John Meehan, a since-retired Suffolk chief who worked under several Suffolk police commissioners, including Sini, during his 43-year career, was impressed by Sini’s willingness to immerse himself in police action.
Meehan tells a story about Sini once excusing himself from a kids’ backyard birthday party for his son’s friend to join officers in search of a suspect accused of indecent exposure.
It was hardly a crime that would warrant the police commissioner’s presence, but Sini who had been in the job for just a few months — saw an opportunity to learn firsthand about a facet of police work outside of his dizzying days of meetings on updating department technology, negotiating with unions and poring over crime statistics.
Sini, Meehan said, tramped through thick woods, his shoes muddy, peppering a veteran K-9 officer with questions about his dog’s scent-tracking methods for over an hour and calming residents concerned about the throngs of cops in their neighborhood.
They didn’t catch the suspect, but Sini made an impression to some on the force in that moment of impromptu patrol. “He wanted to know everything about police work, and he wasn’t bashful about jumping right in there ‘What do you know?’ ” Meehan said.
“He was nonstop, like a machine,” he continued. “And when you see that, whatever skepticism that people that didn’t know him had and that’s only natural for there to be some skepticism. I think in an amazingly short period of time, he won them over because he’s so sincere.”
Sini who reflected on his first year as commissioner in a recent interview took the helm of Suffolk’s police department from its previous commissioner, longtime cop Edward Webber, as the department still lingered under the shadow of the arrest of Burke, its former chief.
Burke was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and violating the civil rights of Christopher Loeb, whom he beat up in a precinct squad room, then masterminded a cover-up of the assault.
Against that backdrop, restoring the sense of steady and ethical leadership at the top of the organization was a priority for Sini, and was at the heart of one of his first tasks as commissioner: interviewing dozens of the department’s brass.
“We reassured people that we’re just going to make decisions that are good for the department,” Sini said. “I think the vast, vast majority of people said, ‘Ah, thank God. There’s someone who just wants to manage the department effectively. There isn’t a hidden agenda there. He’s not looking to chop people’s heads off.’ ”
That message isn’t just within the department. Since first tapped for the job in November 2015, Sini has attended scores of community meetings to hear concerns from residents, and has held news conferences at a clip far in excess of any other Suffolk top cop.
He started a series of new initiatives in his first year, from creating a team of officers to take illegal guns off the streets, resulting in a record 507 seizures in 2016, to starting a narcotics tip line to allow residents to alert police to drug activity in their neighborhoods the types of strategies that seemed to fall by the wayside in the Burke era.
Sini also made reforms to the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, giving it a stronger oversight structure, adding staff and ensuring cases are closed within six months.
Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant and adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said Sini’s flood of initiatives should long have been part of the department’s playbook, but he applauded him for quickly making reform-minded changes sending a message to the force that the corrupt culture was over.
In addition to beginning to repair the damage done by Burke, Sini has helped modernize the department, Giacalone said bringing in programs such as the SCPD Shield, an information-sharing platform that Nassau police and the NYPD have had for more than a decade.
But while Sini has talked about the importance of diversity in the police department, and recently promoted a Hispanic woman to be the second in charge of the precinct serving Brentwood, Giacalone said a large department such as Suffolk’s still should do more to hire racial and ethnic minorities.
“You still see the same white guys standing behind the commissioner,” he said. “You need a little more diversity, a couple of women, some people of color in the top brass.”
Sini also re-established partnerships with the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies relationships that had been dismantled during Burke’s reign.
Geraldine Hart, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Long Island office in Melville, said Sini contacted her soon after becoming police commissioner and quickly got a pair of detectives back on the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force. He also invited the FBI back into the yearslong investigation into the multiple sets of human remains found at Gilgo Beach.
Hart said she also was impressed with Sini’s leadership team, including Chief of Department Stuart Cameron and Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante.
“It’s been a great partnership and you can see definitely he understands what people can bring to the table, not just resources, but special skills,” she said. “Since then, we’ve really worked alongside each other trying to combat the surge in violence that’s going on in Brentwood.”
That violence six MS-13 gang killings in the hamlet, including the September killings of two teenage girls fueled the only aberration in Suffolk’s drop in crime statistics for 2016.
“We have to solve these murders and decimate this gang, and those are tall orders but I’m optimistic that we’ll get the job done and we’re making tremendous progress,” Sini said. “I’m very aware of that. We haven’t achieved our objectives yet.”
Sini starts most mornings with a 6 a.m. run to clear his head, he said.
He drives himself to police headquarters in Yaphank in his department-issued 2014 Chevrolet Impala staying at 55 mph in the slow lane on Sunrise Highway.
Sini started one frigid December day in his second-floor office by calling officers and detectives who had made arrests that caught the commissioner’s eye as he scanned the morning’s tour reports. “It’s the police commissioner, how are you?” Sini began. “I’m calling about the robbery collar Thursday morning in the Third Precinct. Great job. Tell me how it went down.”
He listened as the officer described the takedown. “He was coming out of the woods when you grabbed him?” he asked. “That’s perfect. Ha ha. You got him by surprise.”
Sini, who’s also done several ride-alongs with patrol officers, then headed to the Seventh Precinct in Shirley to meet privately with officers and supervisors, before making a stop at the police academy in Brentwood to give pep talks to some of the class of 175 new officers.
He also met with a group of clergy. Sini was raised Catholic and still goes to church weekly, and as commissioner he has attended services at dozens of Jewish, Muslim and Christian houses of worship.
Anthony L. Pelella, senior pastor at the Medford Assembly of God, thanked Sini for spending meaningful time at a recent service. “You didn’t just go to a service, show your face, give a speech and run out to the next place,” Pelella said.
Sini’s signature mark has been his ease interacting with the community, said Noel DiGerolamo, president of the powerful Police Benevolent Association. By his staff’s count, Sini has been to more than 150 community meetings in his short tenure. “The greatest accomplishment of his first year and the administration is bridging the gap between the community and the department and letting people know that there’s a Suffolk County Police Department that is bar none the best in this nation and is willing to listen to your needs,” said DiGerolamo. “The man does not stop. He is absolutely one of the most dedicated commissioners to the community that I’ve ever witnessed in over 20 years of law enforcement.”
Neither Sini nor DiGerolamo who was a close ally of Burke’s has publicly criticized the other. Sini, for whom a PBA endorsement would be valuable were he to run for public office, took a long pause when asked about the relationship.
“I think it’s very healthy that the PBA president and the police commissioner can sit down in a room and talk about issues and it not always result in agreement, but it doesn’t result in unproductive relationships,” Sini said, adding that their typical points of contention revolve around overtime rules.
Sini grew up in West Islip, one of three children of an accountant and an office manager. He played lacrosse at West Islip High School, but childhood friend Paul Vecchione recalled that Sini always made it clear that academic achievement came first.
“He just always had that ambition, that drive, that work ethic,” said Vecchione, now a special education and English teacher at their alma mater. “It doesn’t surprise anybody who knows Tim well that that’s where he’s at right now.” Sini attended American University in Washington, graduating magna cum laude in 2002. He then got a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, finishing eighth in his class of 492 students.
In 2006, Sini married Amanda, a midwife whom he had dated on and off since he was a teenager. The couple has three children. “I’ve been in love with my wife since I was 14 years old,” Sini said.
Sini worked for a pair of corporate law firms in Manhattan and clerked for two federal judges before getting a federal prosecutor’s job in the Southern District of New York in March 2010, working for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. There, he spent 4 1⁄2 years prosecuting gang-related killings and what he said was the first federal prosecution of people selling bath salts, a designer drug.
Suffolk County Democratic leader Rich Schaffer met Sini in March 2014. “He’s got the look, the way he talks, the way he absorbs information very quickly,” Schaffer said. “Every so often you come across the person that’s got the ‘wow’ factor . . . it was something that just really caught me.”
Schaffer tested Sini’s acumen with the public, tasking him with knocking on doors as a volunteer special assistant in Babylon Town, where Schaffer is the supervisor. In 2015, Sini ran as a Democrat against Suffolk Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), a veteran elected official, and lost by 242 votes.
Despite that loss, Schaffer said: “He again just blew it away, he just started solving people’s problems. I started getting letters from people.” Schaffer planned on hiring Sini as an assistant town attorney, but instead, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone hired him in August 2014 to be the assistant deputy county executive for public safety.
Bellone named him deputy police commissioner, then nominated him for commissioner in November 2015 after Burke resigned. Sini was confirmed by the legislature on Feb. 9, 2016. “I wanted somebody outside the system,” Bellone said. “He was somebody who now had more than a great background, with a year of experience here . . . but despite that, he was not of this place. And that was very important.”
McCaffrey said while Sini is honest and hardworking, his constant press presence can appear self-serving. “We’re inundated with his press releases, with him being on TV all the time,” McCaffrey said. “Although the murder rate in Suffolk County is up 36 percent, the number of press conferences the police commissioner is having is up 100 percent.”
He also remains bothered that Bellone nominated Sini for the job without conducting a nationwide search an issue that several other legislators railed about at Sini’s confirmation hearing.
Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who also was critical of the lack of a national search and questioned Sini’s lack of policing experience and his young age, said she was “surprised he’s done as well as he has.”
Despite the uptick in homicides under his watch, Browning said the factors that caused it predated Sini’s reign as commissioner.
“He’s not going to be able to fix that in his first year, but he’s certainly making good strides to do that,” said Browning, who chairs the legislature’s public safety committee. “He’s definitely got an amazing work ethic. And the fact that he’s approachable, not only to the legislators [but] to the public, I can say he’s done a pretty good job.”
But McCaffrey wonders whether the commissioner spot is just a steppingstone for an elected post, like district attorney or county executive.
Schaffer, Suffolk’s Democratic leader, said he’d love to get Sini with his mastery of retail politics to run for elected office again.
“No matter what he wants to do, he’s got an extremely bright future,” Schaefer said. “If I were someone working for the Donald Trump administration, I might even want to see about snatching him away to be the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District.”
Schaffer also said Sini would be a great candidate for county executive or district attorney, but he’s already told the police commissioner that if District Attorney Thomas Spota runs for re-election this year, Spota who is being investigated by federal prosecutors over whether he had a role in the Burke cover-up will have the party’s “strong support.”
“He respects the DA and he also respects the political process,” Schaffer said of Sini. Spota declined to comment for this story. When asked about his political future, Sini was circumspect, saying only he loves being police commissioner and has no plans to run for elected office.
But, he added, “no one keeps this job forever.”