• U.S.

The White Wall of Silence

4 minute read
Jack E. White

Suppose that on one fateful night in August 1997, New York City cop Justin Volpe had contented himself with pummeling Abner Louima with his nightstick instead of ramming a broom handle into Louima’s rectum and then waving it in front of his face. Suppose that after that vicious assault, Volpe had not pranced around the precinct house with the blood-and-feces-stained stick, inviting other cops to examine it. And suppose the victim had not made the headline-grabbing (though phony) allegation that his tormentors had exulted, “This is Giuliani time!”–a reference to the city’s tough-talking Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. There would be a good chance that we would never have heard of Louima and that Volpe would still be patrolling his beat in Brooklyn. Instead Volpe, 27, pleaded guilty last week in federal court to an act of police brutality so sadistic that it cracked “the blue wall of silence.”

That is the high-sounding euphemism that New York’s Finest use for their ingrained habit of refusing to “rat” about misconduct by fellow officers. They ought to call it just obstruction of justice, so ruthlessly enforced by ostracism and even bodily harm that only a few officers have the guts and integrity to break ranks when misconduct occurs. But the assault on Louima was so savage that Volpe’s fellow cops could not tolerate it. Detective Eric Turetzky testified that he saw Volpe lead Louima, in handcuffs and with his pants around his ankles, away from the bathroom area where the incident occurred. Officer Mark Schofield said that when Volpe returned a pair of leather gloves he had borrowed before the assault, they were stained with blood. Sergeant Kenneth Wernick said Volpe had bragged to him that “I took a man down tonight” before showing him the stick he had used.

Faced with this evidence, Volpe pleaded guilty to six federal charges, in the hope of avoiding the maximum sentence of life in prison. (Four other cops accused in the attack remain on trial.) “If you tell anybody about this, I’ll find you and kill you,” Volpe admitted warning Louima that night. But, tellingly, while Volpe apologized “for hurting my family,” he offered no apology to his victim. Nor was there any apology from Volpe’s lawyer, Marvyn Kornberg, who had claimed–without evidence–that the ruptured bladder and rectal lacerations that Louima, a married father of two, had suffered in the attack were the result of consensual gay sex.

But does Volpe’s guilty plea mean that the blue wall of silence is finally tumbling down, as Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir claim? Don’t bet on it. Several law-enforcement experts told TIME correspondent Elaine Rivera that they believe the code of silence remains intact. Volpe refused to name other officers who took part in the assault. And the officers who testified against him waited days and weeks to come forward–and did so then only under the pressure of a highly publicized investigation. Says New York City police lieutenant Eric Adams, co-founder of One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement: “If a civilian were to see another civilian sodomize a person and wait days or weeks to say anything, that could be considered a major crime.”

But there is a deeper reason that the Louima case doesn’t necessarily portend a slowdown in attempts to cover up police brutality. Call it the white wall of silence–the implicit bargain that Giuliani, like the mayors of many cities, has made with his mostly white core political supporters. They reckon that voters will tolerate heavy-handed police tactics as long as they don’t have to see them; that most nonwhites, especially young males, are considered suspect, and that wholesale violations of their civil liberties are an acceptable price to pay for a drop in the crime rate. That is why police brutality is an explosive issue from New York to Los Angeles, where protests broke out last week after police shot and killed Margaret L. Mitchell, a college-educated black woman who had been homeless since developing a mental illness, after she reportedly lunged at them with a screwdriver. It is why the street-crimes unit in New York–four of whose members are charged with murder in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African street merchant–have stopped and frisked thousands of blacks and Hispanics for no reason except their color. It is why many law-abiding members of minority groups are convinced they have more to fear from cops like Volpe than they do from common criminals. Until the white majority makes it clear that it will not tolerate such abuses, they are bound to go on.

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