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James Burke: From beat cop to Suffolk's top cop

James Burke, left, and Dennis Sullivan in their

James Burke, left, and Dennis Sullivan in their patrol vehicle, circa 1988. James Burke became a Suffolk Police officer in 1986, at age 21. But his association with the force began when Burke was a 14-year-old witness in the murder case of John Pius Jr., a Smithtown teen whom classmates suffocated with rocks in 1979. Photo Credit: Handout

In 1979, James Burke became a teenage witness in one of Long Island's most notorious murder cases: the suffocation of 13-year-old John Pius in Smithtown.

The experience helped focus him on a career in law enforcement. Burke, then 14, testified in a series of trials that he heard admissions from classmates charged with shoving rocks down Pius' throat to keep him from talking about a stolen minibike frame.

While police work also was already a key part of Burke's upbringing -- his father and grandfather were New York City cops -- involvement in the Pius case gave him other role models.

"I looked up to the Suffolk homicide detectives, I looked up to the prosecutors," said Burke, 47, now Suffolk police's chief of department, the highest-ranking officer on the more than 2,500- member uniformed force. "I saw how confident, how poised and how professional they were, and I wanted to be like that."

As County Executive Steve Bellone searches for a permanent police commissioner, Burke has taken the lead as the public face of the department. Neither he nor Acting Commissioner Edward Webber are candidates, they have said.

"Any person that I would select as commissioner would love Jim Burke," Bellone said in an interview before taking office in January. "And if they don't, then they wouldn't match up with the kind of commissioner that I want."

Before Bellone tapped him, Burke spent a decade working in the office of District Attorney Thomas Spota, who was head of the DA's homicide unit at the time of the Pius prosecution. For the past five years, Burke served as the DA's chief investigator and commander of the police organized crime bureau that operates from the DA's office.

"He was just a neighborhood kid," Spota recalled of the teenage Burke he knew in the early 1980s. Only much later, when Burke was a Suffolk police sergeant and lieutenant, did Spota realize that his teen witness had become "an outstanding leader."

'In the trenches'

A chief of department is typically in charge of the police force's day-to-day affairs, including patrol, detectives and support services, answering to the commissioner.

Burke, incorporating his DA's experience into his new role, says increased wiretapping and cultivation of informants -- tactics he and Spota employed to bring indictments and convictions in organized crime and political corruption cases -- may be useful in fighting gangs.

He also is requiring that all suspects arrested at individual precincts be debriefed for information about other crimes and incidents occurring in the area -- an effort to gather information about crime trends.

"The long-term, complex investigations gave me experience and perspective that very few people in law enforcement ever get to see," Burke said. "It's truly the stuff you see in movies and read about in novels. But to get back to my roots, to put on a uniform again, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these young cops out there with their lights and sirens on . . . it's what I joined the department to do."

A few weeks after becoming chief, Burke was leaving a meeting with Bellone in Hauppauge when he heard about a bank robbery in nearby Nesconset. He jumped in his car and joined a foot search for the suspect. "It was the first time in 10 years I had my gun drawn," Burke recalled.

"Chiefs of department, by nature of their job, are a little removed from the rest of the department," said John Gallagher, a former Suffolk police commissioner. "But [Burke] seems to be breaking that mold. He wants to get out there and mix it up with the troops in the trenches."

Beat cop

Burke began his career in Suffolk in 1986 after a year as a New York City police officer.

He started as a patrolman in North Amityville, which at the time was grappling with the crack epidemic, and then worked undercover narcotics out of headquarters. In 1991, at age 25, Burke returned to North Amityville as a sergeant: "my true first exposure to community policing," he said.

"We used to call him the original community officer, like you used to read about: the guy who walked the beat and knew everybody," said Rosemarie Dearing, an activist who worked to clean up a drug market at Albany Avenue and Great Neck Road. "We used to walk the areas where the drugs were, and he'd come with us, even if he was off."

While assigned to the Fourth Precinct in 1997, Burke and a colleague received commendations for solving a string of brazen grocery store robberies in the Smithtown area. And as a Third Precinct lieutenant in the early 2000s, Burke got his first extended experience with the language barriers and cultural distrust of police in immigrant communities, including Brentwood and Central Islip.

"Back then we didn't have the things in place to assist Latinos that we do now," he said, citing translation services at all levels. "It was a challenge."

In 2002, the newly elected Spota tapped Burke to run the squad of police detectives in his office, who until then mostly worked organized crime cases with fraud and money laundering. Spota and Burke expanded the unit's scope.

The group soon became involved in terrorism probes, street gang takedowns and corruption cases that netted politicians including Legis. Fred Towle (R-Shirley), convicted in 2003 of taking a bribe and misusing campaign funds, and Islip Supervisor Peter McGowan, a Republican convicted in 2006 of the same crimes.

"He's probably one of the brightest men I've met in law enforcement," said Robert Creighton, a Republican councilman in Smithtown who oversaw DA investigators while Burke supervised police detectives in Spota's office. "Frankly, the police department is now in need of someone that imaginative."

Spota called Burke "the driving force behind all of our significant investigations . . . He has the unique ability to look at the overall picture, focus in on what we have to do and inspire others to get the job done."

In the Pius case, three boys Burke knew from the neighborhood -- ages 14 to 17 -- were convicted in trials and retrials that stretched into the 1990s. A fourth boy had his conviction overturned and was never retried.

Burke said his frequent contact with the police and prosecutors he testified for, beginning with the first trials in the early 1980s, made it difficult for him to go adrift.

"There comes a key time in your life -- and that time is pretty much your later high school years -- where you have to make a decision about what road you're going to go down," said Burke, who called his cooperation in the case "the right thing" to do.

"And having those influences, be it my father, my family or people like the prosecutors and Suffolk homicide detectives, it's pretty easy to make that choice."

James Burke, Suffolk's Top Uniformed Cop

Title Chief of Department

Age 47

Home Smithtown

Family Single

Education Smithtown East High School graduate. Attended Suffolk Community College before entering New York City police academy. 2007 graduate of The Energia Partnership at Molloy College, a regional leadership academy

Career New York City police officer, 1985. Hired as Suffolk police officer in 1986. Promoted to sergeant, 1991; lieutenant, 2000. Assigned in 2002 to lead DA's police detectives squad. Named inspector in 2004. Oversaw police detectives and DA's investigators through December 2011. Appointed in January as chief of department.

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