Against the Blue Wall

A Black Cop Tries To Break the Code of Silence in New Jersey

The leader of an activist black law-enforcement group— regarded by admirers as an avenging Shaka Zulu with a 9 millimeter— is urging African American troopers to jam media switchboards with accounts of "sanctioned racial profiling" by the mostly white New Jersey State Police hierarchy.

The appeal from De Lacy D. Davis, an East Orange Police Department sergeant, who heads Black Cops Against Police Brutality, comes in the wake of last week's ruling by a judge who threw out a state police edict that threatened discipline for troopers who did unauthorized interviews with reporters.

"I encourage the troopers to speak out as loudly, and as often as possible," says Davis, "because although the dam is going to be lowered on the 'Blue Wall of Silence,' some of its defenders will be rushing to make repairs to it as soon as they spot a leak."

In a landmark decision, state Superior Court Judge Anthony Parrillo found that while police agencies may control the release of confidential information, the New Jersey State Police had imposed an overly broad rule, which crushed free-speech rights, as a way to avoid embarrassment. The ruling was sought by trooper Samuel Davis and 12 black colleagues who filed a discrimination lawsuit in federal court claiming they were denied permission to give interviews about the controversy over racial profiling and mistreatment of minority motorists.

"The ruling gives us an opportunity to hear once bottled-up truth aired again, and we will give the black troopers our full support to get their message out," Davis vows.

The 37-year-old activist also is speaking out about beatings in police custody, an aspect of the blue wall he's been chipping away at with no results until now.

Three years ago, Davis claims, he witnessed a detective forcibly attempt to remove a prisoner fom the lobby of the East Orange Municipal Courthouse. While one officer intervened to stop the confrontation, no one except Davis reported it.

Because he had broken the code of silence, Davis alleges, the detective, Victor Tucker, harassed and threatened him, eventually telling him, "I'm gonna take your gun and stick it up your ass!" (Sergeant John LeGates of the East Orange Police Department's Professional Standards Unit would neither confirm nor deny whether Tucker, a 13-year veteran, has had previous brutality complaints filed against him. "You'll have to get a court order for that," LeGates told the Voice.) In a 1997 report to internal affairs, Davis charged that his complaint of misconduct against Tucker "was discovered on the floor in police headquarters"— three months after he'd filed it.

Davis had run up against the wall.

In April of this year, after FBI agents seized records and other items from the Orange Police Department— as part of federal and state investigations into the case of a man who died in custody during the search for the killer of a black female cop— Davis felt that his national crusade against police custodial beatings and mistreatment of minority prisoners finally would be acknowledged.

Nearly three months later, Davis cautiously declares that years of persistent protests may be paying off. According to the activist— who was featured in a Nightline documentary on police racial practices— guilty consciences and tied tongues, particu- larly in New Jersey law-enforcement circles, finally are succumbing to an outcry for justice. On July 1, nine Newark police officers were suspended, allegedly for beating a prisoner and provoking other detainees to assault him by telling them that the man, who was awaiting trial, had sexually assaulted a juvenile.

Appearing at a news conference, grim-faced police director Joseph J. Santiago declared that the department would not condone "blue walls of silence," adding that an internal investigation, when completed, will be forwarded to the Essex County prosecutor to determine whether criminal charges against the officers should be pursued.

"We will not tolerate brutality; we will not tolerate silence about brutal-ity," Santiago said.

Despite speculation that the officers "ratted" on each other, Davis does not share Santiago's exuberance about demolishing the blue wall. "The blue wall is hardening," he contends. "There are those who believe that it is crumbling; I argue that the wall is not crumbling. It's just that some truth is able to seep through the bricks in mortar that has not dried yet."

Disclosure about the assault on the alleged pedophile, who is Latino, comes amid heightened concern in New Jersey about police treatment of minorities. Federal civil rights prosecutors have been negotiating a possible settlement with the state regarding racial profiling by state troopers. Activists like Davis also have been prodding the Justice Department to investigate the circumstances of a chase and fatal shooting last month of a black motorist by state and local police in Parsippany. In addition, a grand jury has been investigating two troopers who shot at four unarmed minority men during a traffic stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in April 1998.

Across the Hudson, Davis is closely monitoring the case of Yvette Walton, a 12-year NYPD veteran who was fired a half hour after she testified before the City Council on April 19 that her old outfit, the mostly white Street Crime Unit, discriminated against black and Hispanic officers and routinely violated citizens' rights by searching them without justification. Last month, Walton filed a federal lawsuit against the city, charging that she was dismissed in retaliation for criticizing the department.

Davis claims that for four years, East Orange police brass denied him a promotion partly because he has spoken out against a pattern of civil rights violations in police departments nationwide. In 1997, then chief Harry Harmon, who is black, allegedly tried to muzzle Davis, who had been writing a scathing series of articles about alleged police misconduct entitled "Breaking the Blue Code of Silence" in the weekly Citizen.

Davis had charged that Harmon "ordered" Captain Peter Biggiani to pressure him to reveal the sources for his exposés. In a July 2, 1997, memo to Biggiani, Davis charged that targeting him was "an attempt by this agency to harass me and circumvent [a judge's] court order restraining any acts of retaliation."

Lieutenant Kevin Hopkins, a spokesman for the East Orange Police Department, says he will look into Davis's allegation. Harmon, who is no longer with the department, could not be reached for comment.

In the memo, Davis noted that his role as regional president of the National Black Police Association made him more "aware of many abuses in law enforcement around the country." His sources, Davis taunted, are well known to the department. "Regarding racist cops, my [source] is Mark Furhman from the Los Angeles PD, drug-using cops, and other [abusers] in law enforcement," he wrote. "My references [include] officers in the NYPD, and Michael Dowd's testimony before the Mollen Commission."

Davis suggested that the department was not interested in credible sources such as cops who identified themselves to internal affairs after witnessing the confrontation between himself and Officer Tucker.

Tension had been mounting between Davis and Tucker after Davis injected himself into a dispute with a prisoner.

In a report to internal affairs, Davis said that on October 23, 1996, while in the lobby of the East Orange Municipal Courthouse, he was distracted by angry banter between Officer William Phillips and the prisoner, Michael Grudger. He said he asked both the officer and the prisoner "to quiet down" but their voices grew louder.

"Eventually . . . Officer Victor Tucker grabbed Mr. Grudger from behind and attempted to pull him from the lobby. . . . ," Davis claimed. "The citizen repeatedly told Officer Tucker that he did not want to leave the building. Officer Phillips grabbed Officer Tucker and advised him to release Mr. Grudger. Officer Tucker eventually complied and Officer Phillips escorted Tucker out of the building."

Davis said that after he reported Tucker's alleged misconduct to internal affairs, Tucker began to harass him. On June 3, 1997, they came face to face at a packed assembly room at police headquarters. "Since you are such a brother, maybe you will give a copy of the reports that you filed on me," Davis quoted Tucker as saying in a complaint he submitted shortly after the incident.

When Davis told Tucker he could get copies from internal affairs, "the detective became irate, loud, and boisterous with me. He began to curse and shout that he was going to 'kick my ass,' that I 'wasn't shit.' " During the altercation, Davis said that he feared Tucker would carry out his threat to disarm him of his gun and shove it up his rectum.

At least three three other officers backed up Davis's version in writing.

In his statement, Officer Gary Griffin said Tucker was the aggressor. "Detective Tucker used many obscenities [such as] 'You ain't shit.' Detective Tucker then [challenged] Officer Davis to meet him at a private place to confront him. Officer Davis responded, 'If you're not guilty, you'll win in court.' "

Davis's remark infuriated Tucker, who, according to Griffin, "had to be physically removed by Officer Charles Hall and others." Tucker, Griffin added, "returned an additional three times to confront Officer Davis. Each time he had to be physically removed by at least two officers." In their last encounter, Griffin recalled, Tucker told Davis that although he was unarmed, that he had "no cuffs and no gun," he would take Davis's own gun and sodomize him with it.

"Officer Tucker was hostile in his mannerism, both vocally and physically, commissioning Officer Davis to step outside," Hall said in his statement. "The two officers exchanged words several times but nothing physical came about. There were several officers in the assembly room at the time along with Sergeant LeGates and Lieutenant Gloria Oliver."

Grudger and Tucker eventually dropped charges against each other. But Tucker was later convicted of "making terroristic threats" against Davis, a clerk at the East Orange Municipal Court confirms. He was originally fined $500, but that was suspended and he wound up paying $127. "Although he was found guilty, the department did nothing to him because it was covering for him," Davis charges.

A law-enforcement insider, who is familiar with the former case against Tucker, told the Voice, "it would seem that an administrative hearing would have followed after a conviction like that. There was none. You could infer from that that somebody was protecting someone."

Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir

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