A federal judge on Friday ordered James Burke, Suffolk’s former police chief, held without bail after concluding that he could not be trusted. “Corruption of an entire department by this defendant is shocking,” Judge Leonard Wexler said.
But what are Suffolk residents to make of county officials who apparently couldn’t figure what was going on?
A letter prosecutors sent to Wexler opposing Burke’s bail suggests that something was woefully amiss in the department. So much so, that there’s no way to count how many officers may have been involved in Burke’s alleged acts.
There were detectives — Burke, according to the letter, called them his “palace guards” — who prosecutors contend saw Burke beat, punch and threaten to kill suspect Christopher Loeb on Dec. 14, 2012.
That morning, Suffolk police and New York State probation department officers were on hand when Burke allegedly tampered with evidence by removing the duffel bag Loeb had stolen from the police SUV that Burke had parked outside his home.
After the incident, the letter states, Burke pressured those under his command to lie to conceal the alleged assault; bragged to other Suffolk officers that the alleged beatdown “reminded him of his ‘old days’ ” as a young police officer; used others “still in law enforcement” to intimidate witnesses and ordered detectives on a federal task force to “spy” on federal officers for information about the investigation into Burke’s alleged actions in the Loeb case.
Witnesses also told prosecutors that Burke regularly ordered them to do personal favors while on duty, and that he ordered the illegal installation of a GPS device on the vehicle of a civilian official in an attempt to “blackmail or force” the official out of office.
In addition, Burke regularly “discussed his desire to seek retribution against current and former SCPD personnel who he viewed as disloyal” — and recruited and ordered others to “assist him in these endeavors.”
According to the letter, a police union official helped reinforce Burke’s alleged tactics by — falsely, he would later tell prosecutors — telling department personnel that Burke and other superiors secretly had obtained copies of FBI witness memos in the federal investigation of the Loeb case.
“I’m a dead man,” one witness told prosecutors when told of the union official’s claim.
Prosecutors allege that Burke, who has pleaded not guilty, continued such efforts almost until the time of his arrest this week.
Burke suspected he would be arrested and threatened to “take everyone down” with him, while pleading with others to remain “strong” in refusing to cooperate with prosecutors, according to the letter. “His long association with some law enforcement officials assure his ability to continue to intimidate witnesses while awaiting trial.”
If proved true, how could such acts go on unimpeded and for so long? And why didn’t those on the receiving end feel confident enough to complain to their elected officials?
It’s a question officials — for the sake of Suffolk’s residents — ought to be trying to answer.