Inside internal affairsUnderstaffed, undermined: Ex-Suffolk internal affairs commander describes how he was driven out
Retired Insp. Michael Caldarelli says department leaders in 2012-14 discouraged him from upholding charges against officers, pressured him to water down findings and denied the bureau the staff needed to properly conduct investigations.
former commander of the Suffolk County Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau says department leaders discouraged him from upholding charges against officers, pressured him to water down findings in two high-profile cases and denied the bureau the staffing needed to properly conduct investigations.
In Newsday interviews supported by police documents, retired Insp. Michael Caldarelli described the two years he spent heading IAB, from late 2012 to late 2014, as a “Kafkaesque” career-derailing experience.
“A decision has been made to keep internal affairs weak,” Caldarelli said he was told while meeting with then-Commissioner Edward Webber and then-Chief of Support Services Mark White.
With small staffing compared with the strength of internal affairs bureaus in other large departments, Suffolk’s IAB often failed to complete investigations before an 18-month statute of limitations barred disciplining officers. It also stopped reviewing complaint investigations conducted by precinct commanders, about half of all cases, Caldarelli wrote in memos.
A “substantiated” finding indicates that IAB has found evidence an officer was guilty of actions that can range from discourtesy to the use of excessive force. In serious cases, substantiated findings can embarrass the department, generate calls for accountability and provide powerful evidence in multimillion-dollar lawsuits alleging police misconduct.
Eventually, Caldarelli came to believe that the department and the county attorney’s office relied on an ineffective IAB to protect Suffolk from the negative consequences of wrongdoing.
It’s clear to me there are people who seem to feel that internal affairs should be functioning as an organ of defense.Michael Caldarelli
“It’s clear to me there are people who seem to feel that internal affairs should be functioning as an organ of defense. It cannot be that way. By definition, that’s corruption,” Caldarelli recalled telling Webber in a Newsday interview. “It certainly seemed for a certain period of time the truth was really not what was being sought from internal affairs.”
Webber and White, who are both retired, did not respond to requests for comment.
Webber transferred Caldarelli out of internal affairs in 2014.
In 2021, Acting Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron promoted Milagros Soto, a 33-year veteran of the department, to chief and gave her command of the Internal Affairs Bureau. County Executive Steve Bellone called her a “trailblazer” as the first Hispanic chief in the Suffolk department’s history.
Before she left the position, then-Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in an interview that the department had added investigators to internal affairs and made serving in the bureau a steppingstone to promotions.
In 2014, the department reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to address allegations of racial discrimination after the beating death of immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue by a group of teens, most of whom were white. The SCPD agreed to report its IAB staffing, track complaints of discriminatory policing and audit completed misconduct investigations.
In October 2018, a Department of Justice report found Suffolk had substantially met its obligations, with actions that included improved recruitment of investigators and faster completion of investigations.
According to Suffolk police records, the number of cases more than 18 months old fell from 130 in June 2016 to two in September 2021.
Caldarelli was raised in Hauppauge in a family whose members gravitated toward firefighting and law enforcement. Joining the Suffolk department in 1985, he was assigned to the Third Precinct, served for seven years in Brentwood and rose to sergeant, then lieutenant.
In 1997, while he was a lieutenant, the department posted Caldarelli to IAB as an investigator. He said his two years there were free from interference from above.
He became a captain, worked in the chief of the department’s office, supervised patrol officers and served as district commander on overnight shifts before being promoted to deputy inspector. He had worked in five of the seven police precincts in the first 27 years of his career.
Caldarelli took command of internal affairs in 2012 after meeting with then-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke, Chief of Patrol John Meehan and White.
The chiefs gave Caldarelli two mandates, he said.
First, get IAB to complete cases more quickly. Too many cases weren’t being finished within 18 months, ruling out discipline.
Second, get tougher, because IAB had wrongly chosen not to substantiate charges despite evidence that officers deserved discipline.
Told that the department would add five lieutenant investigators to its staff of 13, Caldarelli embarked on his mission.
I did believe that there was an honest desire on their part to make things work well for internal affairs.Michael Caldarelli
“I did believe that there was an honest desire on their part to make things work well for internal affairs,” Caldarelli said.
Shortly after Caldarelli’s appointment, an FBI investigation targeted Burke for beating a heroin addict who had stolen a duffel bag containing a gun belt, ammunition, cigars, sex toys and pornography from Burke’s departmental SUV. Burke then engineered a monthslong cover-up with the help of top law enforcement officials, including former District Attorney Thomas Spota and top corruption prosecutor Christopher McPartland.
Burke pleaded guilty in February 2016 and was sentenced to 46 months. He was released to home confinement in 2019. Convicted after a trial, Spota and McPartland began 5-year sentences in December.
Caldarelli believes that Burke’s cover-up attempt played a role in keeping internal affairs weak.
“Burke’s situation looms very large in the picture,” he said.
A few days into his new assignment in October 2012, Burke ordered Caldarelli to investigate who in the department had leaked a story to the Long Island Press. The article revealed that, in a turf war with federal law enforcement, the department had pulled three detectives from a federal gang task force that was investigating MS-13.
While deeming it “stupid,” Caldarelli accepted Burke’s command as a legal order. He assigned Lt. Kenneth Fasano, a seasoned investigator. Caldarelli remembers Fasano telling him:
“‘I mean this with no disrespect, but I got to tell you I don’t think this is a good idea.’ And I said ‘Kenny, I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t know that I would deem it an illegal order; it might be an ill-advised one. But get to it.'”
Fasano scheduled interviews with the three detectives who had been pulled from the task force — Det. John Oliva, Det. Robert Trotta and the late Det. William Maldonado.
Trotta, who served in the department for 25 years and is now a Suffolk County legislator, said Fasano called him at home.
“I didn’t do anything, I didn’t talk to anybody. I don’t know anything,” Trotta remembers telling Fasano. “He said to me, ‘Don’t feel bad, you’re not the only guy [Burke is] after. I feel like I’m in the Gestapo.'” Fasano did not respond to a request for comment.
Oliva said he wasn’t worried, explaining, “We were naive then” about Burke’s corruption.
(Oliva pleaded guilty in 2014 to a misdemeanor charge of official misconduct and was forced to retire for providing information to Newsday in a story unrelated to the gang task force. A federal judge said Spota had “retaliatory motives” for the prosecution. A judge last year tossed out the conviction at the urging of Spota’s successor, former District Attorney Tim Sini.)
For unexplained reasons, Burke called off the internal affairs investigation.
The department promoted Caldarelli to inspector but never delivered promised reinforcements.
When Caldarelli had served as an IAB lieutenant, each sergeant or lieutenant carried 12 to 13 cases at a time. Now, each had as many as 18 cases.
Caldarelli pressed Webber for help in three memos that Caldarelli gave to Newsday.
“In some instances, disciplinary action has not been possible on substantiated allegations due to the 18-month statute of limitations expiring before investigations have been completed,” he notified Webber in April 2013.
“In several recent cases disciplinary action charges have been served just before the statute of limitations expires. This situation has resulted in an atmosphere of near constant crisis in which decisions on discipline must be made very quickly and often on less than complete information.”
He concluded, “The potential for damage to our reputation is very real, as is the specter of substantial civil liability.”
Four months later, in an August 2013 memo, he cited a 2005 Department of Justice survey showing that the Miami-Dade Police Department had one internal affairs investigator for every 30 officers and the Los Angeles Police Department had one for every 37. Suffolk’s department had one investigator for every 182 officers. Today the department has one investigator for every 133 officers.
“The current workload in the Internal Affairs Bureau is unsustainable,” Caldarelli wrote in 2013.
In January 2014, in a yearly memorandum on accomplishments and goals, Caldarelli warned, “Mere survival is the only goal I can reasonably establish for this year.”
In interviews, Caldarelli said he also pressed for additional resources in regular meetings with Webber. At one of those meetings, he remembers that Webber or White remarked that IAB was to be kept weak.
Webber was “tired of telling me no, and he wanted me to know that it wasn’t his decision not to enhance the staffing in internal affairs. And I believe him,” Caldarelli said. He said he never learned who made the decision Webber was referring to.
Toughening standards, as he was ordered to do, met resistance from high-ranking colleagues, Caldarelli said.
I began to get the sense that substantiated cases were really not welcome news.Michael Caldarelli
“As time went on, I began to get the sense that substantiated cases were really not welcome news,” he said.
Caldarelli recalled that Meehan, the chief of patrol, gave him “a friendly warning” that some inside the department thought he was substantiating too many cases.
“He mentioned to me very casually, ‘Michael, a lot of people are thinking you’re substantiating too many cases. You have any idea what your rate of substantiation is compared to New York City’s?’ And I said, ‘No I really don’t, chief.'”
Caldarelli traces his downfall to two cases.
In the first, Caldarelli substantiated 10 allegations of misconduct in the death of Daniel McDonnell, a Lindenhurst carpenter who died in the First Precinct building after a struggle with officers during a psychiatric breakdown. A state Commission of Correction investigation declared McDonnell’s death “a preventable homicide.”
Caldarelli’s findings, completed 33 months after the death, were turned over to the McDonnell family in its lawsuit against the county. He said that Deputy County Attorney Brian Mitchell told him that he believed Suffolk police hadn’t done anything wrong. Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment.
“I said, ‘Well, you know, thanks, but I think I’m more comfortable with my findings,'” Caldarelli said he responded.
After he testified in a deposition, Caldarelli said, Webber told him that he too questioned some of his key findings.
“I politely told him: ‘Commissioner, I disagree with you. I think we got it right the first time.'”
Three months after Caldarelli produced the report, the county agreed to pay $2.25 million in compensation to McDonnell’s family.
In June 2014, a different judge ordered the department to produce a long-delayed report of its internal affairs investigation into how Suffolk police handled the shooting of Huntington cabdriver Thomas Moroughan by an off-duty Nassau County police officer who had been drinking.
Caldarelli substantiated two misconduct charges against supervisors who investigated the wrongful shooting and arrest of Moroughan. He found that a sergeant failed to investigate whether the shooter, Anthony DiLeonardo, and a fellow off-duty Nassau officer had consumed alcohol that night. He also found that a detective sergeant wrongfully ordered homicide detectives to take an incriminating statement — later discredited — from the cabdriver while he was under the influence of narcotic pain medications.
Webber directed Caldarelli to meet with William Madigan, who was Suffolk’s chief of detectives at the time. Madigan arrived with a copy of Caldarelli’s report. He had marked the document with instructions to delete evidence that Caldarelli said was crucial to substantiating the misconduct findings. A copy of the report obtained by Newsday showed Madigan’s handwritten notes. Caldarelli confirmed the document’s authenticity.
Caldarelli wrote a memo to Webber objecting to the changes and requesting a meeting. Face-to-face, Caldarelli said, he told Webber and White that Madigan’s actions were “totally inappropriate.”
Webber responded that he wouldn’t force Caldarelli to do anything. But Caldarelli also recalled that Webber told him, “I would imagine you’re really not very comfortable being in internal affairs anymore.”
Caldarelli said he answered, “I’m absolutely fine with commanding internal affairs, but if stuff like this is going to continue, no, I’m not. I said, ‘This is madness.'”
A few months later Webber transferred him into a position formerly held by a lieutenant, overseeing an office that develops the department’s rules and procedures. “A broom closet counting thumbtacks,” he said.
Caldarelli retired in 2017 at age 54.
In April 2016, Suffolk Police reported it had added staff to IAB, bringing the unit to 18 investigators, led by three captains — the staffing levels that Caldarelli had been requesting. In September, IAB staffing was lower, with 15 investigators and three investigative captains. On Thursday, the department said its staffing was back up to 18 investigators and three captains.