CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A former Long Island police chief charged with beating a handcuffed man for stealing embarrassing items from his department vehicle and then covering it up was sentenced to 46 months in prison Wednesday.
Before the sentencing, ex-Suffolk County police Chief James Burke apologized to police, the judge, the victim and the people of the community. With time served, he’ll spend 35 months behind bars.
Inside the courtroom, his victim, Christopher Loeb, locked eyes with Burke and said, “You abused your power, and I will never again feel safe living in Suffolk County,” 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria reported.
“Your abuse of power and the public’s trust is appalling. You told me no one would believe me,” Loeb added.
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. He noted that more than 80 people had written letters seeking leniency and 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.”
Prosecutors said that Burke has two brothers who can care for their mother, and that one of the brothers was already living in her home, WCBS 880’s Sophia Hall reported.
“My client is going to do his time like a man, and he’s going to come out and be a productive member of society,” Burke’s attorney, John Meringolo, told reporters, including CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff. “He’s made mistakes. He’s remorseful.”
Federal prosecutors have signaled that charges may be looming for accomplices who helped Burke cover up the crime.
In a letter to a judge this week, prosecutors said “high-ranking officials” from other county agencies helped Burke silence potential whistleblowers after he pummeled a heroin addict who had broken into his SUV and 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 brought in and interrogated about whether they had talked, prosecutors said. Some were warned that if they admitted wrongdoing, their union would not pay their legal fees. A commanding officer was assigned to warn witnesses that they could face retribution if they cooperated.
A union official falsely told several officers that Burke and “other high-ranking Suffolk County law enforcement authorities” had secretly obtained copies of FBI memos containing the names of people speaking with investigators.
One officer told a federal agent that if that were true, “I’m a dead man,” the letter said.
As a result, officers who were present for 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 coverup of his actions for three years during which he suborned perjury and prevented witnesses from telling the truth,” U.S. Attorney Ronald Capers said in the letter.
Capers was seated at the prosecution table during the sentencing but did not immediately comment afterward.
The coconspirators were not identified in the letter, but prosecutors said their investigation is ongoing. A federal prosecutor involved in the case declined to comment Tuesday.
At least 11 current or former police officers and detectives who had previously remained silent about the beating testified before the grand jury that indicted Burke. Witnesses said the chief “went out of control” after the handcuffed suspect called him a “pervert” during an interrogation — punching, screaming, cursing and threatening to kill him with a heroin overdose.
Burke became chief of the Suffolk County Police Department in 2012 after having served for nearly a decade as the 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 information that he could use for blackmail, according to the presentencing letter.
“There was a level of justice here and that even somebody as high ranking as the chief of police can’t engage in that kind of misconduct and that kind of corruption and that kind of coverup and get away with it,” said Loeb’s lawyer, Bruce Barket.
Outside the courthouse, Robert Trotta, a legislator and former police detective, said he was happy with the sentence.
“If you were with Burke, he treated you like gold, and you got tons of overtime,” Trotta said. But, “If you did anything wrong in any way, he would persecute you, transfer you and ruin your career.”
“I think that it’s the beginning of the end of corruption. I think we still have a long way to go,” said Trotta, who spoke at the sentencing.
Questions of Burke’s fitness to lead surfaced as far back as 1995, when he was found guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer for twice failing 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, known to be actively engaged in criminal conduct including the possession and sale of illegal drugs, prostitution and larceny.”
Loeb pleaded guilty to a weapons charge and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released last summer. He has sued Burke and the Police Department, seeking damages.
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