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How ex-Suffolk police chief could make case for leniency

James Burke.

James Burke. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Even before former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke was ever convicted of a crime, Robert Capers, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, argued in an eight-page memo to a federal judge that Burke was too dangerous to be granted bail. Capers won the day, and Burke has been sitting in a jail cell since his arrest 11 months ago.

Seen in that light, Burke’s request that he be spared prison time at his sentencing Wednesday so he can help take care of his ailing mother is untenable. Burke used the power of his badge to commit terrible crimes. He pleaded guilty to beating a man in 2012 who stole a duffel bag from his department-issued SUV, and to masterminding a complex cover-up of his actions that included persuading other officers to lie for him.

Burke’s reign over the Suffolk County Police Department has cast doubt on the integrity and judgment of Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, Burke’s longtime boss and mentor, as well as on County Executive Steve Bellone and other powerful law-enforcement officials.

Newsday has reported that federal prosecutors have informed Christopher McPartland, Spota’s chief of investigations and a close friend and ally of Burke, that he’s the target of a federal probe.

Bellone, who appointed Burke to run the force and then supported him for far too long after accusations were made against the chief, has publicly called for Spota’s resignation. Spota’s office also has come under fire for allegations of other misconduct, including an assistant district attorney’s rental of a party boat to criminal defense attorneys.

Burke’s lawyer made a plea for leniency on Friday, arguing that the former chief’s crimes were the exception in his “extraordinary career history in law enforcement.”

Federal prosecutors responded with a stern demand for 51 months in prison and made a far more compelling argument. To explain the terrifying career of this consistently corrupt cop, prosecutors pointed to Burke’s cover-up of a drunken-driving accident when he hit another car, his use of a GPS device to track movements of a high-ranking police official whom he disliked, and his twice losing his service weapon while he consorted with a felon.

There’s one way Burke could make a decent argument for leniency, and it’s the one thing he has steadfastly refused to do: Explain the web of corruption that has infiltrated the most important institutions in Suffolk County.

As Burke climbed the law-enforcement ladder, he consistently showed himself to be ethically challenged, building a chunky internal affairs file that those in power chose to ignore. Burke eventually headed up the investigations unit in the district attorney’s office for a decade before being named Suffolk’s police chief. Bellone made that appointment before hiring the police commissioner who would oversee Burke, and ignored warnings that Burke was ill suited for the job.

Suffolk County has become a place where residents feel they cannot trust the most important institutions. That’s not all Burke’s fault, but he deserves to be harshly punished for what he did — and for being unwilling to explain what else has been done. — The editorial board