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Ex-New York police chief pleads guilty in civil rights case

  • Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke was escorted to a vehicle by FBI personnel outside an FBI office in Melville, N.Y. on Dec. 9. Burke appeared in court today, on federal charges that he beat a suspect who stole sex toys and pornography from his SUV. (Steve Pfost/Newsday via AP, File)

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. » A police chief who beat and threatened to kill a man who broke into his SUV and stole a bag of embarrassing personal items, including sex toys, pleaded guilty in federal court today to violating the suspect’s civil rights.

Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke, 51, who led one of the country’s largest suburban police departments, is expected to get over four years in prison in the case. He also admitted to conspiracy to obstruct justice by covering up the beating, which took place in a police station interrogation room in Smithtown, Long Island.

“He deeply regrets not being forthright,” one of his attorneys, Nancy Bartling, said after the court proceeding.

The plea reflects “his deep desire to accept responsibility for his actions,” she said, reading from a written statement that she said Burke authored. During the court proceeding, the ex-chief admitted that he, “along with others willfully used unreasonable force and slapped and hit this individual causing bodily injury.”

Another of Burke’s attorneys, Joseph Conway, said he expects the U.S. Attorney’s office to announce that other officers involved in the beating also have pleaded guilty. “There were other individuals, as he said, that were in the room with him and those are the individuals he conspired with,” Conway said. He did not elaborate.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office declined comment on Conway’s comments. When he announced Burke’s arrest in December, U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said “stay tuned” on whether further arrests were possible.

In a letter arguing against bail for Burke, who has been jailed since his arrest, prosecutors said the former chief was exacting revenge on a man who broke into his department-issued SUV in 2012 and made off with a gun belt, handcuffs, magazines of ammunition, a box of cigars, humidor and a canvas bag that contained, among other items, sex toys and video pornography.

Prosecutors wrote that Burke “went out of control” after the handcuffed suspect called him a “pervert,” during an interrogation — punching, screaming and cursing, and threatening to kill the suspect with a heroin overdose.

They said at least 11 current or former police officers and detectives — who had remained silent about the beating for years — testified before the grand jury that indicted Burke.

The suspect in the SUV theft, Christopher Loeb, pleaded guilty to a weapons charge and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released last summer. He has filed a lawsuit seeking damages from Burke and the police department.

“I am happy with today’s guilty plea and I know Chris is as well,” said Loeb’s attorney, Bruce Barket; Loeb is currently incarcerated on unrelated charges. “I think the message is that Suffolk County’s law enforcement community has operated as if they are judge, jury and executioner. Those days are coming to an end.”

Burke could have faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the conspiracy charge at trial. His sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

Burke resigned from the force in October after a 31-year career. Before being named chief in 2012, he worked as an investigator for the Suffolk County district attorney.

The Suffolk County Police Department, with more than 2,000 officers, is among the country’s 15 largest departments. It has responsibility for patrolling much of eastern Long Island.

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