THE LESSONS OF ABNER LOUIMA

The trials of those charged with torturing Abner Louima were only in a narrow sense about innocence and guilt. From the moment the awful facts came to light in August 1997, it was clear that there was plenty of guilt and precious little innocence. Whoever physically participated in the depraved assault (which consisted, among other things, of shoving a nightstick up Louima's rectum), an entire station house stood by and let it happen--and then clammed up about what had taken place. So the trials became, as much as anything, a search for truth, in both the large and small sense of the word. What exactly had taken place? And how, in a civilized society, could such an awful thing have happened?

Anyone who has ever witnessed a court case knows how elusive truth can be, knows that lies are as abundant--and often as imperceptible--as viruses floating in air. And with cops as the alleged perpetrators, the search for good explanations was probably always fated to fail--all the more so in New York City, whose policies permitted police officers under investigation for "serious" violations two full business days prior to submitting to interrogation. That's certainly more than time enough for a creative cop to fabricate a story.

The appeals court conceded the strength of the evidence indicating that cops had lied. But because it was not proved that those lies were specifically intended for the grand jury, officers Thomas Bruder and Thomas Wiese got to walk. And it may never be known whether Charles Schwarz (whose conviction for taking part in the torture was thrown out because his lawyer had a conflict of interest) was indeed a participant in Louima's humiliation or was merely confused for Wiese or someone else. (Louima himself was unsure of the second assailant's identity.) From the beginning the cops hid behind such a high wall of duplicity--suggesting at one point that Louima had essentially mutilated himself--that only a clairvoyant could have determined what actually transpired.

For an incident that generated such outrage, New Yorkers responded to the reversals with uncharacteristic calm. Having sat through three separate criminal trials, many people are no doubt tired of the drama. Other factors are at play, too. One is a commitment to fairness, a feeling that Schwarz, guilty or not, deserves to make his best case. There is also the sense that whatever may happen in a new trial, some important battles have already been won. Justin Volpe, the main (and self-confessed) perpetrator, is serving a 30-year prison sentence. Louima has received an $8.75 million settlement (part of it from the city and part from the policemen's union). And the so-called police code of silence--if not broken--was cracked.

It was very important to the Louima team that the civil suit be about something more than calculating damages for the awful things done to one ill-fated man. The suit focused on the "code of silence perpetrated by these policies that make good cops afraid of coming forth and telling the truth," says Louima lawyer Barry Scheck. And though police officials claim there is no connection, it was only after Louima's ordeal that police contracts began to phase out the 48-hour rule for suspect cops.

Myriam Gilles, a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (where Scheck teaches), wrote an influential Boston University Law Review article in February 2000 arguing that local governments must be held responsible for police codes of conduct that "regularly abridge the constitutional rights of the citizenry." "But for the knowledge that misconduct will go unreported, a police officer would never mistreat a detainee in the presence of other officers, falsely arrest or harass witnesses of police misconduct, or orchestrate elaborate police cover-ups," she wrote. With such arguments, Gary Friedman, Gilles's husband and a practicing attorney, won a $400,000 settlement from the New York City Department of Corrections. The case was brought by a prison guard who was attacked after snitching on other guards for taking sexual liberties with female inmates.

Such small victories notwithstanding, it's unclear how deep a change the Louima cases and others that follow it ultimately will have on police culture. For it was only the singular horror of the crime, and the intensity of the reaction that it provoked, that allowed federal prosecutors to make any headway at all. And now, with the reversals, the question of a double standard is inevitably being raised. Friedman goes so far as to argue that a civilian would never have seen his conviction overturned in the way Schwarz's was. As Helen Anderson, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington law school, observes, when defendants are poor and unknown, cases with sleeping, drunken or simply incompetent attorneys "somehow get [through] the courts."

Supporters made certain that Schwarz wasn't lost in the system; and conscientious jurists made sure that his rights were thoroughly protected. It would be nice if things turned out so well for everyone who felt himself wrongly accused.