The scales of justice trembled last week when a federal appeals court overturned the convictions of three New York City police officers who had been found guilty in 1997 in the Abner Louima torture case. The ruling thus acquits two officers — Thomas Bruder and Thomas Wiese — who cannot be retried, and gives the third, Charles Schwarz, the opportunity for a new trial.
In an understandable rush to judgment, spurred by law enforcement and city officials, and public opinion clamoring for swift justice, prosecutors hastily gathered what has been deemed "insufficient evidence."
Furthermore, Schwarz’ attorney had conflicted interests. While defending one suspect he was also on retainer with the Police Benevolent Association (PBA). This dual accountability may have influenced his inclination for a speedy conclusion, thereby hindering his effort to indict others, which satisfied his PBA obligation, but prevented him from providing an adequate defense for Schwarz.
While I don’t normally adhere to Oliver Stone-like conspiracy theories, I suspect that Schwarz’s attorney, Stephen Worth, may have performed his conflicted duties with a keen eye on a subsequent reversal. Though I doubt this notion will ever be established, it nonetheless casts a shadow of doubt over the entire situation.
Schwarz’ insufficient defense, coupled with convicted police officer Justin Volpe’s adamant denial of the former’s involvement, does not alter the obvious: any officer in the Brooklyn police stationhouse that awful August 1997 night must have heard the piercing screams and knew exactly what was happening to the Haitian immigrant who was being brutalized and sodomized by one of New York’s Worst.
Of course, Volpe, who’s now serving a merciful 30-year sentence for admitting to brutalizing Louima with a nightstick, is just one exceptionally bad apple who got caught then refused to name others directly or indirectly involved.
It’s a deep-rooted tradition for New York City cops to rendezvous behind the almost impenetrable Blue Wall of Silence whenever fellow officers are suspected of violating the laws they’re sworn to uphold. Any decent officer who dares come forward with the truth is thereafter deemed a Judas.
The fact that NYPD officers are also not legally bound to talk to investigators for 48 hours before an interrogation about illegal activities is beyond comprehension. This policy, which is written into police union contracts, puts police officers above the law, allowing them extraordinary treatment inaccessible to anyone else. Police codes should be held to a higher, not a lower standard, of conduct. (Following the Louima ordeal, a national campaign began that will phase out the 48-hour rule in police union contracts for suspect cops.)
The overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers perform their assigned duties with utmost integrity. But when cops break the law, whether the victim is an innocent Haitian immigrant or a notorious drug dealer, and others remain silent, it tarnishes all officers.
Any prevailing disrespect for police officers in New York City’s minority communities seemed to ebb after September 11th. It is, therefore, a shame to see that contempt rejuvenated following last week’s court pronouncement. Hopefully, levelheaded minds will prevail and not allow hyperbole and anger to boil over into reckless aggression.
Sadly, this ruling sends a clear-cut message to uniformed officers that the Blue Wall of Silence is condoned. And, that is a distressing — the most distressing — upshot of the appellate decision that may have safeguarded the officers’ rights but disregarded Abner Louima’s civil rights while reeking of partiality towards the police.
It’s a damn shame that Justin Volpe, the principal thug in what well may be the worst known case of police brutality in NYPD history, and the unnamed guilty officers of the 70th Precinct violated their oaths, as well as the public trust, to hinder an investigation. None of them deserve to wear the same uniform or even be mentioned in the same breath as the gutsy police officers who instinctively reacted in the rescue efforts in lower Manhattan six months ago.
Volpe’s 1999 conviction sent a message that he was not above the law. Last week’s federal court ruling, unfortunately, diluted that principle.
A generation ago when ex-cop Frank Serpico uncovered a web of NYPD corruption, he said, "We must create an atmosphere where the crooked cop fears the honest — not the other way around."
Nearly a quarter of a century later it appears some NYPD officers still turn a deaf ear to those remarks.