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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

How Steve Bellone came around on the need for James Burke to go

Chief of the Suffolk County Police Department James

Chief of the Suffolk County Police Department James Burke addresses Suffolk County legislators in Hauppauge on Feb. 2, 2012. Credit: Ed Betz

County Executive Steve Bellone built the leadership of Suffolk's police department around one man, James Burke, who on Monday announced that he would step down as chief of department.

Burke's decision -- which Bellone, in an interview yesterday, said had been mutual -- came once Bellone learned that Burke was again under federal investigation in connection with allegations that he punched a suspect who had stolen a duffel bag from Burke's department-issued vehicle.

The first federal investigation into an abuse complaint against Burke by Christopher Loeb of Smithtown started in June 2013. Back then, Bellone stood steadfastly by his man.

"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 Bellone issued in October 2013, during Loeb's trial. Loeb was sentenced in April 2014 to 3 years in state prison for his role in the Burke theft.

Bellone noted then that Burke had been "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."

But days before he is to seek re-election on Nov. 3 to a second term, Bellone learned of a second federal investigation into the same allegations.

And Burke, very quickly, was helped along his way out.

What changed?

Bellone said Wednesday that he stood squarely with Burke in 2013 in part because both were new in their positions. And because Burke -- who, in an unusual move, had been named chief of department before Bellone settled on a police commissioner -- mirrored Bellone's view on community policing and other strategies.

"We were in line with the kind of reforms that were necessary," Bellone said. "I'm a big data-driven guy and he believes in data-driven policing."

But then came word -- this week, Bellone said -- that federal prosecutors were taking another look at Burke. "My understanding is that the investigation was closed, and that now it has been opened again," Bellone said.

Bellone said he has not spoken to federal authorities, but learned of the new probe through other avenues. "I don't know details, other than that the investigation appears to involve Jim," Bellone said.

With that, he said, he called Burke in for a meeting, where the two agreed that Burke should step down. "We thought it would be in the best interest of the department," he said.

Burke, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has been charged with no crime.

Did Bellone ask his political advisers about whether to shed Burke, and acknowledge the second federal investigation, so close to Election Day?

"I did," he said. "They told me don't do it, but I felt I had to make a decision regarding the department, not politics."

Even so, the department -- and Bellone -- might not be spared. But that depends on where this -- the second federal investigation into the 2012 allegations of abuse -- ends up.

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