The Louima Decision

Is Punishment Possible for Police Brutality?

Whether or not we choose to recognize it, we live in a cityscape that has for decades been littered with the dead bodies of citizens killed by the police under questionable circumstances. Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Heyward Jr. was killed in 1994 by police as he played cops and robbers with his friends in the housing complex where he lived. Anthony Baez, 29, was killed that same year by an illegal police chokehold in the Bronx after his football accidentally hit a patrol car. Hilton Vega, 21, and Anthony Rosario, 18, were killed in the Bronx in 1995 while lying facedown on the floor. Yong Xin Huang, a 16-year-old Brooklyn honor student, was shot in the head by a police officer in 1995. And the list goes on, back to Dred Scott and beyond.

The only police officer serving time for any of these killings is Francis X. Livoti, Baez's killer. Livoti's eventual conviction, after charges were first dismissed because of bungling by the Bronx D.A. and after acquittal by a judge in a nonjury trial, was a direct result of sustained pressure by the Baez family and a broad coalition of activists. Federal authorities finally indicted Livoti for violating Baez's civil rights, leading to a 1998 conviction and a seven-and-a-half-year sentence.

Not much time for the taking of a life, but it beats no time, the usual in these cases. Most of those killed or brutalized by the police in the United States are young, black, Latino, or Asian. In the face of the inability of the criminal justice system to successfully prosecute police, it's impossible to deny the perceived worthlessness of these lives. As attorney Alton Maddox said nearly two decades ago, "The criminal justice system in New York State will deal with you more harshly if you kill a dog than a black man."

Abner Louima was watching a fight. Amadou Diallo reached for his wallet. Patrick Dorismond said no to an undercover cop's drug solicitation. No one has been punished for the deaths of Diallo and Dorismond, and only Volpe has been held responsible for the torture of Louima. The most difficult question this decision and all the other dismissals, acquittals, and failures-to-indict raise is, what do we tell our children if those who obey the law are unalterably subject to abuse or murder by the police?

"It really does say that there is no place where you are safe, where your rights can't be violated, whether you're doing something or not," says Perez. "This has a chilling effect. The killings are part of a continuum, but the bulk of that continuum is made up of those daily stop-and-frisks that young people deal with all the time. A killing is just the far end of a spectrum of constant harassment, violence, and abuse. It is a lowering of expectations for our young people and us, that we have allowed this to become a routine of life."

For a moment it was possible to hope, if not believe, that justice had been served. The February 28 Court of Appeals decision has disabused us of that notion. Justice, to paraphrase an old saying, remains for Just Them.

Related Articles in This Issue:

"Reversal of Misfortune: The Wrong Charges, the Right Decision" by Alan M. Dershowitz

"The Louima Prosecutor: Pataki and D'Amato's Pick Is Unqualified and Tainted" by Wayne Barrett

« Previous Page