A poster of a black police officer bearing the words “Salute Our Heroes” hangs from a light pole on the corner that intersects Flatbush and DeKalb avenues. A promotional piece for the Twin Towers Fund, the advertisement represents a grace period police officers have enjoyed following September 11, after a decade of being at odds with disenfranchised communities. Many in the city have begun to embrace the NYPD, calling its cops heroic since that tragic day.
But the feel-good story of the last six months came to an unceremonious end on February 28 when a federal appeals court, citing a conflict-of-interest technicality, granted a retrial to police officer Charles Schwarz in the Abner Louima torture trial. The court also reversed the convictions of police officers Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder, due to what they called a lack of evidence.
Anti-police-brutality activists took to the streets last Wednesday to protest the court’s decision, weathering the steady downpour of rain that fell on that first day of spring. And as the small crowd stood in the cold in search of what has become elusive justice when criminal cases involve police officers, the Twin Towers Fund poster hanging overhead flapped uncontrollably, the rain ripping at its edges.
The irony was striking. In the course of two hours, the poster’s symbolism shifted from representing the new NYPD, a caring institution that had formed a warm relationship with the city’s residents, to embodying a mockery of a search for justice that goes on.
“September 11 made people pause, stop, and think,” said Richie Perez of the Justice Committee of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. “But it didn’t change the reality of police abuse.”
That reality long preceded Louima’s abuse and the conviction reversal last month. Under the Giuliani administration in particular, police officers brutalized and killed people without fear of retribution. Even when cops were indicted, Perez said, the Blue Wall of Silence stood firm.
“We’ve dealt with dozens of cases where killings and beatings took place and there has always been a cover-up,” he said. “These killings and cover-ups sent a message to cops that they wouldn’t have to face the full weight of the law if they broke the law. They just kept getting bolder and bolder,” he added.
The latest in a long list of injustices, Schwarz was granted a retrial because, according to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Unit, the officer only needed to prove that there was a conflict of interest, not that the conflict affected the verdict. Schwarz’s attorney simultaneously represented him and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.
While the court’s decision sparked ire in most of the protesters last week in Brooklyn, for some of the parents who lost children to police brutality an eerie familiarity set in with the reversal of the convictions.
“It was so unfair. It was like a slap to my face,” said Milta Calderon, whose son, Anibal Carrasquillo, was killed by a police officer in January 1995. “I struggled for seven years and [Brooklyn district attorney] Charles Hynes shut the door on my face.
“What makes her better than us?” she asked, referring to Schwarz’s wife, Andra. “I heard her talk about [being without her husband] the past three years. I don’t care. I lost my son.”
Calderon was one of nearly a dozen parents there who had lost children to police brutality. The parents, most of them members of an organization called Parents Against Police Brutality, wore buttons with their children’s faces on them.
Iris Baez, whose son Anthony was killed in the Bronx more than seven years ago by a police officer who used an illegal choke-hold on him, fears the courts more than the officers themselves. Baez had to wait four years before Francis X. Livoti, who had earlier been acquitted by a Bronx judge, was convicted in federal court of violating Anthony Baez’s civil rights.
“If we can’t get justice in the courts, where can we get justice?” Baez asked. “If [the courts] would’ve done something when my son was killed, then this probably wouldn’t have happened to Louima, and [Amadou] Diallo probably wouldn’t have been murdered.”
The government on all levels preached “normalcy” after the attacks on the World Trade Center, urging citizens to get on with their lives. Unfortunately for victims of police brutality, the latest injustice in the Louima case is business as usual.