By Joseph Ax and Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. authorities on Wednesday arrested a former police chief on New York's Long Island for beating a man who allegedly stole ammunition and cigars from his police car, the latest accusation against a law enforcement officer for engaging in excessive violence.
James Burke, who resigned as chief of the Suffolk County police department in October amid a federal investigation into the 2012 incident, has been charged with committing civil rights violations and then obstructing the probe into his actions.
U.S. Justice Department officials announced the charges at a press conference on Wednesday. Burke was expected to be arraigned later in the day in federal court in Central Islip on Long Island.
Prosecutors said Burke assaulted Christopher Loeb, who had been arrested for probation violations and accused of breaking into several cars, including Burke's police vehicle. Loeb stole Burke's gun belt, several magazines of ammunition, a box of cigars and a duffel bag, according to court documents.
According to the indictment, which was unsealed on Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court, Burke "slapped and punched" Loeb while he was handcuffed at a police station. Loeb confessed to breaking into Burke's car but later claimed he had been coerced by Burke's attack.
The indictment also alleges that Burke and other unnamed members of the department agreed to conceal Burke's role in the assault by providing false testimony under oath and withholding information from federal agents and a grand jury investigating the case.
In a lawsuit filed against Burke and the county in February, Loeb claimed other officers joined Burke in the assault, asserting that he was "beaten, terrorized, chained to the floor and threatened."
"When caught at a crossroads between right and wrong, Burke took a shortcut on the path to justice," said Diego Rodriguez, the assistant director in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's New York field office.
Suffolk County, which includes the eastern section of Long Island, is home to approximately 1.5 million residents.
Burke's arrest comes as a Chicago police commander, Glenn Evans, stands trial for allegedly putting a gun into a suspect's mouth and after another Chicago police officer was charged with murder for shooting a knife-wielding teenager 16 times.
High-profile killings and beatings of suspects by law enforcement officers in U.S. cities have prompted a national debate and protests about the use of excessive force by police.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)