Long Island – 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 have indicated other charges may be looming for accomplices who helped cover up the crime.
Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke apologized to his victim, the judge, his family and residents of his Long Island community before being sentenced to 46 months Wednesday by a federal judge.
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.”
In a pre-sentencing letter to Wexler, 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 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 cover-up 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 ex-police chief pleaded guilty last winter in the beating and cover-up. He has asked for no prison time because he says his mother is dying of cancer.
The co-conspirators were not identified in the letter, but prosecutors said their investigation is ongoing. A federal prosecutor involved in the case declined to comment Tuesday.
Burke became chief of the Suffolk County Police Department, one of the country’s largest suburban police forces, 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 pre-sentencing letter.
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.”
In the 2012 incident that led to his downfall, Burke was exacting revenge on a man who broke into his SUV that year.
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 and cursing and threatening to kill him with a heroin overdose.