Justice For Louima

Big-city cops do a tough, dangerous job, and even their most ardent defenders will admit that sometimes, mistakes can happen and tragedy can occur. The Abner Louima case was never in that category. Late one night in August 1997, Louima was arrested, handcuffed, beaten and dragged into the bathroom of a Brooklyn precinct house. There a swaggering, powerfully built officer named Justin Volpe shoved a broken-off broom handle up Louima's rectum, then waved the feces-covered stick under his nose and threatened to kill him if he ever told anyone about this excruciatingly painful assault. On trial for violating Louima's civil rights, Volpe last week stunned the city by changing his plea to "guilty" and by dropping the tough-guy act--he even wept a little. "Your Honor, if I could just let the record reflect that I'm sorry for hurting my family," Volpe told the judge. He never mentioned Abner Louima. What happened to Louima at the hands of New York police was so obviously premeditated and so appallingly sadistic that no face-saving explanation was possible.

Apologists argue that such brutality is very rare. But a spate of high-profile incidents suggests that even good cops can overreact, damaging relations between police departments and the mostly minority communities they serve. Within hours of Volpe's guilty plea, an unarmed 16-year-old Bronx youth, Dante Johnson, was shot and seriously wounded by a member of the NYPD's Street Crimes Unit. The Street Crimes Unit was also involved in the February death of Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old African immigrant who was shot 19 times despite the fact that he was unarmed and had no criminal record. In Riverside, Calif., the FBI is investigating the death of 19-year-old Tyisha Miller, who was shot 12 times by four white officers while passed out in her car, with a gun in her lap, last Dec. 28. In Los Angeles, a 54-year-old black woman, Margaret Mitchell, was shot to death on May 21 by an LAPD officer. Mitchell, who was mentally ill, apparently lunged at the cop with a screwdriver--but she was only 5 feet 1, and the officer had his partner as a backup. "What's frightening to me is the lack of evident interest in attacking the problem," said Harvard Law professor Christopher Edley Jr., a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The commission, which previously reviewed police conduct in Los Angeles, held hearings in New York last week.

The Louima case is a powerful example of how police react to misconduct in the ranks--an incident so ugly that it tested, and ultimately broke, the "blue wall of silence" within the NYPD. Critics point out that the cops themselves did not report the assault and that Louima, who suffered severe internal injuries, might never have told his story if a hospital nurse hadn't told him to get a lawyer. When Louima went public--the case made headline news in New York City--Internal Affairs invaded the station house and over a period of weeks found several cops who were willing to tell what they knew. One was Officer Mark Schofield, who testified that Volpe boasted "I broke a man down" after the incident in the restroom. Schofield also said Volpe borrowed a pair of gloves before the incident and that the gloves were bloody when he returned them. "Sorry about the gloves, man," Volpe said. The result, nearly two years later, was the prosecution of Volpe and four fellow officers, including his partner, Charles Schwarz. With Volpe's guilty plea, the trial of Schwarz and the other officers appears to be heading toward a conclusion this week. (All four have pleaded not guilty.) Volpe was jailed until sentencing--he could get life in prison--and his lawyer said he will get a psychiatric evaluation.

The question now is whether anything changed for the better--and as usual, the usual suspects disagree. Mayor Rudy Giuliani said the cops' willingness to testify against Volpe "destroys the myth of the blue wall of silence." The Rev. Al Sharpton said "a lot has changed" as a result of the Louima case. "Allegations of police brutality are a lot more believable to John Q. Public," Sharpton said. "There's still a blue wall, but there are holes in it." But others were skeptical. "Nothing has changed," said Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "Volpe was so sinister, so sadistic, that even his peers in the NYPD thought what he did was over the line." Sadly, that seemed closer to the mark as the city closed the books on one rogue cop and waited for the pending trial of the four officers who shot Amadou Diallo. They are charged with murder, and the case has polarized the city like no other in recent memory. "We know that ours is not a systematically racist or brutal department," Police Commissioner Howard Safir told the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. But, Safir conceded, many New Yorkers think otherwise.