The first witness to testify Tuesday in the trial of former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and his top aide, Christopher McPartland, gave jurors a peek at some subtle wrongdoing, courtesy of a case focused on devastating corruption.
That seemingly small wrongdoing is inextricably linked to the beating of a suspect and the cover-up of that beating by law-enforcement officials that have shaken Suffolk County.
Suffolk police Det. Brian Draiss testified he arrived at a Smithtown home in 2012 where Christopher Loeb, a heroin addict and thief, lived, after Loeb had been apprehended fleeing a probation check. In Loeb’s room, Draiss found scores of syringes and heroin paraphernalia, piles of mail addressed to other people, credit cards in other names and belongings stolen from the car of former Suffolk County Chief of Department James Burke. Those included the salacious (a pornographic movie about multiple partners, two dildos, condoms) and the dull (Burke’s gym bag and gun belt). Also found was a pile of Burke’s Superior Officers Association cards that some cops give out to friends and family and whoever they think should be above the law.
Burke’s personalized union cards, with the words “honorary” and “Chief of Department” printed on them in large red letters, would have been prized indeed. One thing witnesses have made clear about Burke is his vindictive nature. They likely would have been very hesitant about prosecuting suspects who carried Burke’s personal get-out-of-jail-free cards.
And that’s what these cards are, although they mostly get people out of traffic tickets. Many police officers give friends and family members Police Benevolent Association cards so other officers will let those friends and family members slide if they break the law. That also might mean a car does not get searched that had a bit of cocaine in the glove box, or that a suspended driver’s license doesn’t get run through the computer. Officers’ badges are even more powerful tools for getting themselves out of trouble than the cards given to others, because cops don’t like to hassle cops. These cards create two sets of rules, one for those who have police connections and another for those who lack them. That corrodes respect for the law, and opens a door to bigger corruptions.
The last witness to testify Tuesday at U.S. District Court in Central Islip told of infuriatingly vile conduct, and that witness will get all the attention.
Former Suffolk County police Det. Kenneth Bombace admitted he beat Loeb while the man was in police custody in 2012, and that Burke and other cops beat Loeb, too. Bombace lied about the crime then and said others did, too. That tale of beating and terrorizing a suspect and covering it up is what everyone will remember and condemn. Spota and McPartland resigned from their positions and are on trial for allegedly participating in that cover-up.
This trial is expected to run at least until mid-December. The jurors — ranging in age from their mid-20s to mid-50s, nearly equally divided by gender, and from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds — are settling in. Some take notes and all pay attention, mostly watchful and impassive. The audience includes former and current police officers focused on every shred of testimony.
And what is going to stir the room are the shocking descriptions of obvious corruption.
But the heart of this case is a story of police officers and prosecutors who believed they were above the law. They began to believe it because every day, in the little ways, they were.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.