Here’s the thing about Republican lawmakers’ vociferous call Tuesday for the federal government to monitor Suffolk’s police department: It looks like the feds, aggressively, have been doing just that.
James Burke, the department’s former top-ranking uniformed member, is under arrest in a federal detention facility as a result of U.S. Justice Department allegations. He’s pleaded not guilty to charges of impeding a federal investigation and violating the civil rights of a suspect by allegedly assaulting him in the Fourth Precinct — which is in the same county complex as the legislative building where Republicans held their news conference.
Burke was ordered held without bail after prosecutors enumerated a series of other disturbing allegations — for which Burke has not been charged — in a letter to U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler.
In denying bail, Wexler drew a direct line between alleged actions of the highly decorated Burke and operation of one of the largest suburban police departments in the United States.
“I find the corruption of an entire department by this defendant is shocking,” Wexler said after listening to federal prosecutors. “A man who has taken every oath taken, who has made pledges and has a responsibility, has violated every one of them.”
“Based on his past performance, there is no set of circumstances concerning bail that I can honestly trust him to fulfill and there is no way he can be supervised to the degree where he’s not a danger to the community,” Wexler said of a police chief recommended for his job by Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, and supported and kept in place by County Executive Steve Bellone for 2 1⁄2 years after allegations of the assault first surfaced.
As GOP lawmakers pointed out, it took the federal government to dig out and make a case against Burke, after earlier inquiries by federal authorities and a Queens prosecutor. As a result of the latest federal probe, reignited and still ongoing after some witnesses changed their statements, there has been a spate of resignations from the department.
And the public — no thanks to the county executive, or lawmakers for that matter — is learning from the efforts of federal prosecutors about how various orders to cover up Burke’s alleged actions were slammed down the chain of command, reaching even into the federal government itself.
As Newsday’s Robert Kessler reported this week, the federal government, as part of the Burke investigation, isolated and then removed two detectives from a joint task force who allegedly had been ordered — and refused — to spy and funnel back information on Burke.
This is a major scandal. And it seems to be growing. And no, it doesn’t matter that Bellone’s pick for the department’s next commissioner — another political ally, Timothy Sini — is a former federal prosecutor who once worked for U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara.
Sini is rebuilding the strained working relationship between Suffolk and the federal government, even as he makes changes in the police department. But his efforts — and political maneuvering between Republicans and Democrats on the county legislature — won’t stop an ongoing federal investigation.
And as for that federal monitor? The U.S. Justice Department doesn’t need a request. Should its investigation determine such a need, formal federal monitoring will follow — whether Suffolk wants it or not.