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Suffolk police chief departs none too soon

Chief of the Suffolk County Police Department James

Chief of the Suffolk County Police Department James Burke addresses Suffolk County legislators in Hauppauge on Feb. 2, 2012. Credit: Ed Betz

James Burke's exit is long overdue. Burke, the chief of the Suffolk County Police Department, retired Tuesday under a cloud.

It has been 30 years since he became an officer and more than two years since a federal probe was opened into his conduct with Christopher Loeb, then 26. Loeb was accused of breaking into Burke's SUV and taking his gun belt, ammunition, handcuffs and personal effects. Now the Eastern District of New York has reopened that probe, and Burke has quit.

Much of what happened with Loeb, a repeat offender who admitted taking Burke's things, is unknown. But a police report says Burke went to the man's Smithtown home while other cops were apprehending him, which is improper. And police sources have said Burke ordered everyone else out of an interrogation room so he could be alone with Loeb, which falls even further astray of the rules. Loeb claims Burke assaulted him.

But disgraceful as all this was, there were better reasons for Burke to step down. A Newsday report of his history as a street cop was deeply troubling. An internal affairs investigation concluded that he had a sexual relationship with a felon and drug addict while on the job, and failed to secure his gun. And this baggage led to a lack of trust in Burke from other agencies and all but quashed Suffolk County's ability to cooperate with task forces operated by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration.

Such special efforts are badly needed at a time when heroin use and the crimes that accompany it weigh heavily on residents. And with Burke at the helm, department morale was low.

Burke's retirement comes a week before an election likely to give County Executive Steve Bellone a second term. Bellone had always defended Burke against all criticism, even during the initial federal probe. The county executive said Burke was a good leader with innovative policing ideas. Clearly something has changed. Finally.