Suffolk County has a new district attorney.
Tim Sini now has his charge. He must restore the public’s trust in one of the most important and powerful offices in the county. The mission of a prosecutor’s office, in perception and reality, is to enforce the laws and deliver justice.
Thomas Spota, who held the office for 16 years, battered its reputation. For most of that time, he was endorsed by virtually every political party and accountable to no one. That kind of power is corrupting and corrosive, and last month Spota and his top deputy were indicted on federal charges that they helped cover up crimes, the physical abuse of a suspect in custody, by then-police chief and Spota protégé James Burke.
Now it’s up to Sini to harness his undeniable ambition as fuel for the exorcism. He said all the right things in his victory speech, promising to restore integrity. He said he’d immediately begin to assemble a top-notch transition team. He vowed the office will no longer be a tool to benefit the politically connected. That will require big changes. If there aren’t massive resignations from top managers, he should begin firing them on day one. He must follow through on his promise to require financial disclosures from deputies and bureau chiefs. He must set down rules that ban political activism to ensure the office is nonpolitical.
Perhaps most critically, he must be independent from the powers that helped deliver him his nomination on multiple party lines. Sini must remember: His allegiance is to the voters who gave him their confidence. One encouraging sign: Sini held his victory party at his own headquarters, separate from party leaders.
His victory means County Executive Steve Bellone also has a charge: To find a new police commissioner, and this time to follow a standard process for hiring one. Sini became commissioner only after the arrest of Burke. He started a cleanup of the police department, but the job is far from complete. The culture that festered under Burke is still there.
Bellone had foolishly appointed Burke, despite many red flags. He stuck with the disgraced chief long after it was clear that was not tenable. And he appointed Sini without the benefit of a real search to find someone who could address the morale and discipline problems on the force, as well as one who could shape it into a model department.
This time, Bellone should cast a wide net. He should consider someone who has run a large suburban police department. And both Sini and Bellone must understand their actions will be evaluated against the backdrop of a recent Newsday investigation that found a racial bias in the county’s criminal justice system. Minorities are far more likely than whites to be stopped by police, arrested, jailed and charged with felonies for having cocaine or heroin. Better training in both offices is essential.
Suffolk also will have a new sheriff. Democrat Errol Toulon Jr. is leading, but the tightness of his margin over Republican Lawrence Zacarese and the many outstanding absentee ballots means the result won’t be final for weeks. Whoever wins must remain independent of the political machinations that marred this contest.
In Suffolk, criminal justice and politics have been an unholy mix. It’s time to start anew. — The editorial board