Don’t let a few bad cops tarnish the image of law enforcement
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This week, a timeless battle for public opinion played out in two distinctly different corners of the New York metropolitan area. That battle was for the hearts and minds of the informed citizens of the nation’s largest media market to realize that, despite two horrible examples of police corruption; 98 percent of the nation’s law enforcement officers are the example of integrity, with a myriad of oversight measures in place to prove so. Still, with convictions of both an officer and a Chief of Police in the poorest part of New York City and the wealthiest part of Long Island occurring in the same 48-hour time frame, it’s hard to convince citizens otherwise.

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A Bronx-assigned New York City Police Officer, Merlin Alston, was convicted on Tuesday in Manhattan federal court for conspiracy to distribute as much as 40 pounds of narcotics while armed. The federal case against Alston showed he was providing protection for a drug dealer Gabriel Reyes by ‘tipping him off’ to possible drug busts as well as physically escorting him on drug runs. The case also shows that Alston was not “turned corrupt” while working as a police officer in the fashion that infamous “Seven Five” Officer Michael Dowd was in the 1980s and ‘90s, but had been close friends with Reyes since high school. This calls recent police recruitment strategies to go outside the traditional applicant pool into question.

Prosecutors noted that even after his suspension, Alston would accompany Reyes on drug deals armed with a shotgun for protection. In February, Alston who has been in custody since his arrest in 2014 will start a 15 years to life in prison sentence.

Meanwhile, in the quiet, affluent suburb of Eastern Long Island, Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison on Wednesday for a series of crimes touched off by the break-in of his take-home police car.

Prosecutors showed that Burke initiated a cover-up that made its way throughout Long Island, resulting in an investigation by the FBI that is not only focused on the police, but also judges and Suffolk County prosecutors. Ironically, the cover-up wasn’t because Burke was embarrassed that his vehicle was broken into and his gun belt was taken, but the theft of a duffel bag containing pornography and sex toys was also taken from the 2012 theft as well. 

That larger investigation showed no signs of having ended on Wednesday, even as the man at its center was given a stiff 46-month jail sentence by a federal judge despite Chief Burke’s more than 80 character letters. Judge, Leonard D. Wexler compared Burke to a dictator in saying the police chief had “corrupted a system,” and that his crimes were not limited to this single episode.

Burke was formally charged with violating the thief’s civil rights and conspiring to obstruct justice. Initially, the FBI case against Burke had a narrow focus: When the heroin-addicted thief was caught by members of his agency, it was alleged that Burke assaulted and threatened to kill him in a station house interview room. When FBI agents started investigating this, it was reported that Burke pressured his detectives to commit perjury in court and to lie to federal agents who were investigating the assault, which is a crime in and of itself.

For a while, Burke’s cover-up was successful in hindering the F.B.I. But after more than two years on the case, federal agents gained the cooperation and testimony of at least 10 police officers who confirmed that the thief, Christopher Loeb, was brought to a station house and shackled to the floor of an interrogation room while the police chief punched Mr. Loeb and shook his head violently. At one point, prosecutors said, he threatened Mr. Loeb, telling him that he would receive a “hot shot,” slang for a fatal dose of heroin.

Mr. Loeb, who is currently imprisoned in connection with a parole violation, said he drew some satisfaction from the fact that Burke had been reduced to his own circumstances. “Now look at us both; we’re both incarcerated,” he said, his glance falling on the khaki jail uniform that Mr. Burke wore.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of 51 months in prison, claiming in a legal filing this week that a severe sentence was appropriate because Mr. Burke’s conduct had “severely undermined the public’s trust in law enforcement at a time in which relations between law enforcement and the public are at an all-time low.”

When cases like these occur, it goes to show that police officers, like the criminals they apprehend are human. In the Alston case, one must wonder if the old time-honored recruitment and indoctrination of rookie police officers was adhered to in hiring someone who had been associating with drug kingpins since high school, yet still managed to get on the NYPD. In the Burke case, one must wonder if the power of leading one of the largest, highest paid county law enforcement agencies in the nation made Burke feels like he can do anything on the job and get away with it? 

Who knows what would have happened if Alston was told to forsake his neighborhood friends for his law enforcement brothers or be forced off the job. What would have happened if Burke didn’t feel comfortable enough to be leaving a duffel bag full of porn and sex toys in the back of the car with his police equipment? What if had he instilled a professional culture within the Suffolk County Police in where his detectives could have a “come to Jesus” discussion with him when he felt it was ok to come to them with an illegal request? 

As someone who has had their car broken into and stolen from by local heroin addicts, I can tell you that it makes you absolutely want to give that person a beating. But did I go as far as calling all my friends on the job at costly man hours to go on a manhunt to capture and restrain the junkie so I could get my hands on them? No, I filed my police report and insurance claim and moved on. I also happen to be someone who has been sanctioned in the past for making stupid choices that violated department policy on the job, I can tell you that as a human being, I’ve been extremely hard on myself and learned from my mistakes.  

For their mistakes, both Alston and Burke owe the honest men and women of law enforcement an apology. Thanks to them, the groups out there and media opportunists who want to paint the whole profession as brutal and corrupt have the ammunition they need. On a week where a shocking ten American law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty, I choose to rationally look at the majority who do the job every day, with heavy reporting requirements, internal affairs oversight, and scrutiny from outside agencies. It is because of them and their sacrifices, that I can condemn the likes of Alston and Burke, and confidently say that 98 percent of our law enforcement officers deserve our trust and respect.

Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety and regular contributor to The Hill. He serves as a member of the Pierce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter: @PublicSafetySME


 

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