CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. -- A suburban New York police chief who orchestrated a department cover-up after beating a handcuffed man for stealing embarrassing items from his SUV has been sentenced to nearly four years in prison. Federal prosecutors indicated other charges may be looming for accomplices who aided the cover-up.
Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke apologized to his victim, the judge, his family and his Long Island community before being sentenced to 46 months Wednesday.
U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler said Burke’s crimes went beyond the beating and affected the entire 2,000-member police department.
“I feel Mr. Burke acted as a dictator,” the judge said as the former chief sat stoically with his hands folded in front of his chin.
Wexler noted more than 80 people wrote letters seeking leniency, calling Burke a good man who helped many people in a 31-year career. But, Wexler said, “He also did bad if you were not on his side. That’s corruption.”
In a pre-sentencing letter, prosecutors said “high-ranking officials” from other county agencies helped Burke silence potential whistleblowers after he pummeled a heroin addict who had taken his gun belt, ammunition, a box of cigars and a bag containing sex toys and pornography.
Officers subpoenaed by FBI agents investigating the 2012 beating were interrogated afterward about whether they had talked, prosecutors said. Unnamed co-conspirators had warned some that if they admitted wrongdoing, their union would not pay their legal fees, prosecutors said.
A union official falsely told several officers Burke and “other high-ranking Suffolk County law enforcement authorities” had obtained copies of FBI memos containing the names of people speaking with investigators. One officer told a federal agent he was “a dead man,” if that were true, the letter said.
As a result, officers working the night of the beating or heard Burke brag about it at a Christmas party stayed quiet for years, prosecutors said. One lied in court and said the attack had not happened.
“In terms of obstructing justice, it is hard to imagine a more serious example of this conduct than the highest-ranking uniform member of the police department assaulting a suspect and then orchestrating a cover-up of his actions for three years during which he suborned perjury and prevented witnesses from telling the truth,” U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said in the letter.
The ex-police chief pleaded guilty last winter in the beating and cover-up. He asked for no prison time because he says his mother is dying of cancer.
The investigation is ongoing.
Burke became chief of the Suffolk County Police Department, one of the country’s largest suburban police forces, in 2012 after serving for nearly a decade as chief investigator for Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.
Prosecutors called Burke’s time as chief a “reign of terror.”
They said he kept liquor in his office and regularly drove drunk. He had subordinates conduct surveillance on his girlfriends, prosecutors said. In 2013, he had a contractor illegally put a GPS device on a high-ranking civilian police official he disliked, hoping to gather blackmail information, prosecutors said.
Questions of Burke’s fitness to lead surfaced as far back as 1995, when he twice was found to have failed to safeguard his weapon. Internal Affairs reports also found Burke had engaged in sexual acts in police vehicles and had a sexual relationship with a convicted felon.
In the 2012 incident that led to his downfall, witnesses testified he “went out of control” after the handcuffed suspect called him a “pervert” during an interrogation - punching, screaming and cursing and threatening to kill him with a heroin overdose.
The victim, Christopher Loeb, addressed Burke in court.
“You told me my word was no good against that of a decorated police chief,” said Loeb, who is serving a sentence for a parole violation. “Well fortunately today, for the first time in my life, my belief in the justice system has surfaced, because today, defendant Burke, there is law and this is order.”