Let us examine the illusion nurtured both by the mayor and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Eastern District— that justice was finally thumpingly served in the Louima case. When Justin Volpe, the terrorist in blue who tortured Abner Louima, was convicted, Giuliani and his papier-mâché police commissioner, Howard Safir, triumphantly announced that the notorious blue wall of silence had been broken.
Justin Volpe was hardly alone with Louima in the 70th Precinct that night.
But, to begin with, as Boston civil rightscivil liberties lawyer Harvey Silvergate pointed out in The National Law Journal:
“The Louima case was broken not because the four testifying officers volunteered their knowledge at the start, but rather, because a civilian nurse at Coney Island Hospital dropped a dime by telling a New York Daily News reporter [Mike McAlary] that the police had just brought in a seriously injured black man who appeared to have been sodomized with a stick.”
If McAlary had ignored that call— as the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Division did— wouldn’t Volpe still be walking a beat in Brooklyn?
Another black man was beaten that night by Volpe’s colleagues. Jim Dwyer, in the May 23 Daily News, remembered Patrick Antoine, “who was picked up and beaten apparently because he was a Haitian and walking along the street. . . . Had Louima not been subjected to dungeon-style torture, Antoine would have been another guy who was mistakenly arrested, clobbered, and never heard from again.”
No cop has been charged with police brutality against Patrick Antoine. But Charles Schwarz, the one cop convicted with Volpe for helping him sodomize Louima, may be the fall guy. Schwarz deserves a new trial (Murray Weiss, New York Post, August 16).
When police sergeant Kenneth Wernick testified, at last, against Volpe, he said Volpe bragged about the exploratory work he had accomplished in the precinct-house bathroom: “He said he took a stick and put it 5 or 6 inches up his ass.”
But Wernick did not report what he had heard that night. (“I walked away, I didn’t want to be involved at any point.”)
As Jim Dwyer noted, “it was Wernick’s job to arrest Volpe and let a jury decide if his insane boasts were true. And what of the other officers there who either have remained silent or came forward only when their jobs were in danger?”
None of those cops still crouched behind the blue wall of silence have been publicly, individually, shamed by the police commissioner. And, of those who came forward, Wernick suddenly won his long coveted promotion to sergeant. Said Dwyer: “The Police Department has decided that his record of not arresting Volpe for admitted torture, or even seeing to Louima’s health as he lay bleeding in a cell, qualifies Wernick to be a sergeant.”
But, speaking of qualifications for setting standards of accountability for the NYPD, look at who’s the police commissioner. Safir’s own blue wall keeps growing like Pinocchio’s nose.
Dwyer interviewed some of the jurors in the Louima case after Safir and Giuliani had heralded the police witnesses as heroes. “I didn’t view the police witnesses as hero cops,” said one juror. “No one testified freely. Everyone had something to lose or gain.”
Because of what happened to Abner Louima— along with myriad other cases of police brutality (some of which have cost the city, and us taxpayers, millions of dollars in settlements of lawsuits)— federal prosecutors have been investigating how the NYPD handles brutality complaints. City comptroller Alan Hevesi projects a 1999 payout of $40 million for police brutality cases, an increase of 41 percent in one year.
If Giuliani and Safir remain in dishonest denial of the facts on the ground, the Justice Department can appoint a federal monitor or some other form of outside oversight of the NYPD until it conforms to the Bill of Rights.
But Giuliani has pledged he will not permit any outside interference with, as he puts it, “the most restrained police force in the nation.”
The only way to make the police accountable is for the next mayor to pledge the following unequivocal reforms: A wholly independent special prosecutor with subpoena power to deal with complaints of police brutality and corruption. That prosecutor should be appointed by the governor.
Also, there must be an entirely independent civilian complaint review board that, with new legislation, would not have any mayoral appointments. And the police commissioner would have no veto power over its findings. They would go straight to the special prosecutor. It’s up to the next mayor.
Public advocate Mark Green has discovered that hundreds of police brutality cases sent by the CCRB to the police department as “substantiated” have been summarily dismissed by the NYPD.
The mayor now picks five members of the CCRB and has to approve the five nominees submitted by the City Council. The police commissioner picks three more, but even they have to be approved by the mayor.
Meanwhile, in a current police brutality case, four cops are on trial for the vicious beating of Reginald Bannerman, who later fell onto subway tracks and was killed.
Two of the cops are accused of the actual beating and the other two are charged with covering it up. All four cops are black.
Putting more blacks on the police force is no guarantee of a reduction in brutality. Some of them fall into the culture of the precinct. In this case, why is the commander of the precinct not up on departmental charges?
As for the Louima case, Eric Adams of 100 Black Men in Law Enforcement says: “Any police officer there the night Louima was brutalized was aware something illegal was going on and is just as guilty as Volpe.”