James Burke, the former Suffolk County chief of police, has been convicted of corruption charges among a scandal that has shaken the Suffolk County Police Department to its core. Initial charges stemmed from an accusation that he beat up a suspect in custody, threatened to kill him and coerced witnessing officers into covering up the affair.
On December 14, 2012, 26-year-old Christopher Loeb was arrested outside his mother’s house in Smithtown, New York. Arresting officers drove him to the Suffolk County Police Department’s fourth precinct, chaining him to the floor of an interrogation room. Loeb was not informed why he was arrested and was denied access to a lawyer. Loeb had recently stolen a police officer’s black duffel bag from the backseat of an unlocked car containing handcuffs, mace, a gun and porn that appeared to feature prepubescent boys. Incapacitated yet conscious that the bag belonged to James Burke, Loeb called the police chief a “pedophile.”
Burke responded by jabbing his fingers into Loeb’s face. He joked that the brutality reminded him of his “old days,” referring to his fellow officers as his “palace guards.” One cop allegedly threatened to rape Loeb’s mother and Burke himself told Loeb he would kill him with a “hot shot.” Burke then said he would kill Loeb with a fatal overdose of heroin and make it look like a suicide.
In the weeks after the abuse, Burke pressured his officers to cover up all traces of the incident. One whistleblower told the US Attorney’s Office that if Burke found out he was talking to the FBI, he would be a “dead man.”
Through this information, the FBI gathered a laundry list of abuse allegations against Chief Burke including illegal wiretapping, black mail, sexual misconduct, cover-ups, and drunk driving. One of the more egregious corruption charges accused the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association of creating a Super PAC run off mandatory donations.
On February 26, Chief Burke pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating Loeb’s civil rights and conspiring to destroy evidence. Civil rights lawyers hope that Burke’s conviction will be the first in a long series of federal probes of local law enforcement abuses.
Former NYPD officer Peter Fiorillo told VICE, “Suffolk is so dirty. Every place has corruption, but on a scale from one to ten, it’s an 11.”
The corrupt culture surrounding Suffolk County enabled a character as dark and sadistic as Burke to come to power in the department. Burke has a long history of abuse, bullying, sexual deviance and criminal activity. In 1993, he had a relationship with drug dealer and sex worker, Lowrita Rickenbacker, and has been arrested multiple times by the same precinct where he eventually became chief. As a teenager, he was arrested for choking a classmate with stones.