Top cops can't be cowboys. Suffolk County Police Chief of Department James Burke has clearly crossed this line, and now a federal investigation will determine whether he overshot it by a disgraceful distance.
Last December, Burke's department-issued sport utility vehicle was broken into and a gun belt, ammunition, handcuffs and personal effects were taken. Within hours, suspect Christopher Loeb had been identified and cops were at his house in Smithtown. But according to police records, Burke also showed up. That's against Suffolk County rules, and Burke should have known it was improper. Law enforcement sources say Burke compounded this error in judgment by showing up at the precinct where Loeb was held and ordering the squad room cleared of everyone but Loeb and himself. Then, according to Loeb, Burke punched him in the stomach.
Burke has denied any wrongdoing. Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's statement of support of Burke, oddly, was issued by the police department, not Bellone's office. Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota referred the prosecution of Loeb to Queens County because Burke was his investigator for 10 years.
Loeb is a drug addict and repeat offender who has admitted taking Burke's belongings. An alleged accomplice was released from jail on Jan. 30 and has agreed to a plea deal. Loeb doesn't deserve sympathy for the fix he's in. He faces multiple charges and was on felony probation when arrested. But Loeb didn't deserve to be abused, if he was.
Now he is the prime complaining witness in a civil rights probe by a Manhattan-based FBI unit. Whether the federal action is just about Burke or the entire department, and where it will all lead, is unclear.
At the very least, however, Suffolk County deserves a police leader with enough self-control not to break with procedure just because the crime, this time, was committed against him.