The arrest of former Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke Wednesday spurred disappointment and concern for the future of law enforcement in the county.
Whether attorneys and officials supported or reviled Burke, many said the case would have some effect on District Attorney Thomas Spota, who has nurtured and promoted Burke from the time Burke was 14 years old throughout his career.
“They are so tightly connected,” said defense attorney Christopher Brocato, a former prosecutor. “It certainly isn’t good for him.”
Brocato noted that Spota made Burke chief of the district attorney’s offices’ detective investigator, the job that was his springboard to becoming chief. Brocato faulted the office for being too close to police, generally.
“The district attorney’s office is supposed to vet the police department, and they don’t,” he said.
Spota declined through a spokesman to comment on the arrest of his protege.
Some were disappointed by the arrest and the swirl of rumors that accompanied it. In the halls of the criminal courthouse in Riverhead, attorneys traded rumors and speculation with each other. Whispered conversations ended in shrugs.
“It’s a sad day for Suffolk County law enforcement to see a person like Jimmie Burke being charged,” said defense attorney Steven Wilutis, a former chief of homicide for the district attorney’s office. He recalled a young Burke “running around on the fourth floor” of the courthouse when he was a teenager, testifying during the infamous trials concerning the murder of John Pius Jr. Some of those cases were prosecuted by Spota.
“I’ve always respected him,” Wilutis said of Burke. “I thought he was a good law enforcement officer. It’s probably very demoralizing for Spota.”
Another former prosecutor, Craig McElwee, said it’s demoralizing for law enforcement countywide.
“The people who are in charge of law and order are being questioned about their dedication to law and order,” he said. “What they do now affects the direction of the county.”
For Spota, McElwee’s former boss, this is the time when the district attorney will reward people’s faith in him or lose it by how he handles the fallout from the arrest. “This is the turning point,” he said.
“Jimmie Burke’s his boy,” McElwee said of Spota. “He needs to come forward. He has to say something.”
County Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Smithtown), a former law enforcement officer and a vociferous Burke critic, said Burke’s arrest was a rebuke to Spota and County Executive Steve Bellone, who hired Burke as chief.
“Clearly, the district attorney is involved with him,” Trotta said of Burke. “He might be part of the problem, propping him up over the years.”
Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said Burke’s arrest was a stain on law enforcement.
“Ninety-nine percent of law enforcement officers possess integrity, honor and courage,” DeMarco said. “Unfortunately, Burke did not have those qualities. He had really serious character failures that should have been picked up earlier in his career.”
The arrest was a moment to take stock, DeMarco said.
“I think as elected officials, we all should look in the mirror and remember who we work for,” he said.
In time, however, he said he hoped the public’s confidence in law enforcement is restored.
Through a spokeswoman, Bellone said, “The Suffolk County Police Department is one of the nation’s finest law enforcement agencies and Suffolk County residents should have confidence in the work they do every day to keep our community safe. We have a strong leadership team in place that has the right mix of experience, integrity and professionalism to lead this department going forward.”
A police department spokesman said the department does not comment on ongoing investigations. The department, however, did not run this investigation.
Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) cautioned that whatever Burke may have done should not reflect on the rest of the department or on the district attorney’s office.
“I hope people recognize the vast majority of the police department is law-abiding and dedicated,” he said. “In a department of that size, you’re always going to have a few bad apples.”Gregory acknowledged that Spota and Burke have been close friends for decades, but he said it’s not fair to suggest that Spota is tarnished by association.
He credited Bellone with quickly putting into place a leadership team at the police department that will work effectively with federal law enforcement.
With Tania Lopez