Questions swirl around Bellone's support of Burke

A police sergeant and a detective testified Friday A police sergeant and a detective testified Friday that they saw the top uniformed official of the Suffolk County Police Department, Chief of Department James Burke, in the interrogation room where police were holding the man charged with stealing items from Burke's car. (June 3, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has broken more than a week of public silence on allegations involving his hand-picked police chief of department, James Burke.

The bottom line?

Bellone's standing with Burke, who has been accused of punching a suspect in the stomach and removing evidence from the suspect's home.

"In 1997, then-Sgt. James Burke was named Cop of the Year, an award given by colleagues based on exemplifying the traits most important to being a police officer," according to a statement released late Monday by a Bellone spokeswoman.

" . . . He was promoted seven times under three administrations, oversaw all investigations for District Attorney [Thomas] Spota, and he has also received 45 commendations for outstanding service.

"Based on the entirety of his accomplishments over 27 years in law enforcement, James Burke earned the position of chief of department and the results speak for themselves: Crime is down overall by 16 percent and violent crime is down nearly 13 percent because he has helped implement reforms like intelligence-led policing, community-based policing and finding more efficient ways to put officers on the street."

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What about testimony during a pretrial hearing of Christopher Loeb, 27, of Smithtown, who is accused of stealing a duffel bag out of Burke's department-issued SUV in December? Two detectives testified that Burke showed up at Loeb's house and removed evidence. Loeb told his family that Burke punched him in the stomach.

"We are not commenting on allegations," said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Bellone's director of communications.

Last week, Suffolk police Det. Thomas Cottingham -- who has since retired -- testified that he saw Burke take the duffel bag from Loeb's home after Loeb, who was on probation in a grand larceny case, was arrested.

That bag, according to police and court records, contained Burke's gun belt, ammunition, cigars and other items.

The pretrial hearing aired the latest in a string of allegations and disclosures involving Burke -- including a Newsday story about a two-decade old internal affairs investigation that determined that Burke had engaged in conduct unbecoming to an officer.

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The Loeb case. The federal investigation. The fact that a decision was made to search Loeb's house one day before he was arrested.

Together they raise a key question: Have department operations been impacted?

Bellone's statement Monday was not specific. But until this stretch of silence, he repeatedly and publicly defended Burke, around whom he built the department's leadership.

Bellone appointed Burke chief of department even before a nationwide search for a police commissioner had commenced. With Bellone's continued support, Burke one day could succeed Suffolk's commissioner, Edward Webber.

The county executive's statement made no mention of allegations in the internal affairs report that Burke, among other things, had a relationship with a felon.

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Was Bellone satisfied that what happened 20 years ago had no relevance now?

Perhaps, somewhere down the line, that answer will come, too.

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