Good Evening
Good Evening

Indictment of James Burke tarnishes Suffolk County

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, center, stands

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, center, stands with newly promoted James Burke, left, and Edward Webber, right, on Jan. 20, 2011. Credit: Steve Pfost

James Burke, who ran the Suffolk County Police Department for almost four years and led investigators in the district attorney’s office for eight years before that, is too dangerous to be granted bail.

The indictment of Burke, the swaggering, powerful insider who by all accounts was allowed to abuse his position as chief of department, is in its own way an indictment of the leadership of Suffolk County.

In asking a federal judge to keep Burke in jail, Robert Capers, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, filed an extraordinary memo that says Burke created “a climate of fear to protect his interests.” Fearing indictment, the memo says, Burke “threatened to ‘take everyone’ down with him” by blackmailing SCPD members with information about their personal lives and families. The prosecutors said Burke’s deep connection to the county law enforcement establishment “insures his ability to continue to intimidate witnesses” while awaiting trial.

Burke, who was the department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer until he resigned in October, was charged Wednesday in a two-count indictment with abusing the civil rights of a suspect, Christopher Loeb, and forcing a detective he supervised lie about it to a federal grand jury that was investigating the allegations. However, threatening to kill a suspect in chains at a police precinct and then pressuring officers he supervised to cover it up sounds routine for Burke. He has done what he wanted and gotten away with it for decades, first under the supervision of District Attorney Thomas Spota, his mentor, and then Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who supported and protected Burke despite the stink of scandal that surrounded him.

The eight-page memo opposing bail is stunning. Here’s a sample: In 2011, Burke allegedly admitted that he was drunk when he crashed into a state-owned vehicle. Burke and the driver of the other car left the scene, allowing Burke to avoid prosecution, and he paid for the repairs to cover it up. Burke also allegedly spied on a civilian in the department he wanted gone by putting a GPS on the person’s car to blackmail the individual.

The cover-up is always worse than the crime, and that’s what prosecutors claim in this case. According to the federal memo, it seems to involve the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association as well. A union official is said to have tried to scare police officers into silence because Burke and his allies allegedly were getting secret FBI files about the witnesses in Loeb’s case. The union official supposedly warned that Burke would soon know “who was talking, ” and later, the union told members it would pay their attorney fees “only as long as they did not admit to wrongdoing.” And union officials were present at their interviews. Those are mob tactics.

Now the dangerous Burke is in a cell in a Brooklyn detention center. And he might be even more dangerous if he cooperates with prosecutors. Bellone, Spota, departing police Commissioner Edward Webber, and commissioner nominee Timothy Sini, who supervised the department for 15 months as deputy county executive, should start talking, too. Tell the public what you knew or didn’t know, so we can decide whether you deserve to keep your jobs.

Meanwhile, this frightening lack of institutional oversight of the SCPD at the highest levels calls out for a federal monitor to get control over the department, because those who have it now aren’t doing very well.