Making police accountable is essential. At three o’clock in the morning, a cop is more powerful than the mayor, the governor, and the president. He can kill you.
–Former NYPD detective David Durk, who, along with Frank Serpico, broke the blue wall of silence before the Knapp Commission in 1971
Every interaction with the police is fraught with anxiety and danger. There is no relative power here; the police officer has it all.
–Robyn Blumner, a syndicated columnist for The St.Petersburg Times and a former ACLU official
When Rudolph Giuliani appointed a task force on police-community relations last summer, you didn’t have to be a seer to know it was a spin. He wanted to take some of the heat off himself in the horrified wake of what happened to Abner Louima in the 70th Precinct.
Having now pushed the commission to disband, Giuliani–as a New York Times headline put it–”sneered” at the commission’s mild majority report. Surprised at the backlash to his arrogance, he said later he could have been more gracious in his response to his vassals.
But as usual, Giuliani has had his own way. The commission is dead, and he will continue to fight any attempt, including by the City Council, to allow the existence of an independent review board over the police. Giuliani deeply believes that only the police can credibly make the police accountable for brutality and corruption.
As this series will prove–far beyond a reasonable doubt–Giuliani does not want to change the brutal status quo, and so it will continue. The police cannot police themselves.
Joel Berger, an attorney, served as a senior litigator for the city’s corporation counsel from 1988 to June 1996. The last two and a half years were under Giuliani’s administration. He was responsible for examining cases of alleged police brutality and then deciding which cops the city law department would decline to represent.
Before that, Berger was with the Legal Aid Society and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He is now in private practice and handles a number of police misconduct cases.
Berger, with his intimate, long-term knowledge of police misconduct, makes this point:
”This [problem of police brutality] is not a case of an administration being misinformed or not fully appreciating the magnitude of a problem. This Giuliani administration knows exactly what it is doing and why. It has made a fully conscious decision to pay very little attention to the problem, thereby putting your personal safety in jeopardy.”
Consider this example of the arrogance endemic to some of Giuliani’s police. The story, which appeared on March 29 of this year in The New York Times, was written by Robert Lipsyte, a journalist of consistent ability and integrity:
”Barbara Mostel…was waiting for a bus on Avenue of the Americas a few hours after the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting in 1996 when cops on horseback and on foot began yelling at her to move.
”Eventually, she says, one of them moved her, picking her up and throwing her down on the pavement. Her arm, back, and head were injured.
”’I should be grateful. I’m a small woman, 93 pounds and 5 feet 4 inches,’ she said the other day. ‘I guess if I were a big man, [the police officer would] have shot me.’
”Ms. Mostel said the officer gave her his badge and precinct numbers when asked, but they weren’t his real ones. An artist, she drew pictures of him for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, but [police] officers claimed to be unable to find him.”
Her lawyer is Joel Berger and–Lipsyte reports–”Berger found most poignant her vain attempt to get other officers on the scene to be witnesses for her.”
Barbara Mostel speaks for many New Yorkers who have been treated by the police as if James Madison had never written the Bill of Rights.
”It’s very depressing,” she told Lipsyte, ”because there’s no closure, and you feel so unprotected. And you’re reminded every day when you go out and see a police officer.”
Mostel is trying to start a support group for New Yorkers who have been victims of police brutality. So long as Giuliani is mayor, such support groups will be on his enemies list.
As for the refusal of the other officers on the scene to be witnesses for Barbara Mostel when a brother officer had thrown her to the pavement, that’s the ”blue wall of silence,” which was barely nicked in the Abner Louima case. Nearly all the cops in the 70th Precinct have been as silent as grass.
The 1994 Mollen Commission Report on the New York police includes a statement by a witness, a cop who appeared in disguise to prevent injury to himself by other police:
”[The blue wall] starts in the Police Academy, and it just develops from there….It starts with the instructors telling you never to be a rat, never give up your fellow officer.”
Now you see why the police can never be trusted to police themselves and why an independent investigative commission–and an independent prosecutor–are one basic way to begin to change the police culture by knocking down the blue wall of silence.
Also in the Mollen Commission Report, there is this insider’s description of what would happen to a civilian going to a precinct to report a cop’s brutality:
”The Desk Officer would give the complainant the paperwork to fill out. Then the complainant would ask him for a pen. The Desk Officer would tell him, ‘Listen, there’s a bodega across the street, go there and buy it…’
”Then if the complainant needed any help with the complaint form, the Desk Officer wouldn’t help him. Then if the person went through all the aggravation to fill out the complaint report, they’d tell him, ‘Listen, we have to get it typed now. There’s a waiting line. It’s going to be about three hours, so sit right there and wait.’ Half the time people would leave. As soon as they left, the Desk Officer would crumple up the complaint and throw it right in the garbage.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 5, 1998