World: New York left simmering by police violence

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The Independent Online
SOMEBODY on Thursday had placed a porcelain lavatory bowl on the pavement outside the federal court building in Brooklyn. Beside it stood a long-handled plunger. If this was street art, it was not meant as comedy. Rather, it was an angry evocation of proceedings inside that were the very antithesis of funny.

All this month, the courthouse has been venue to a trial of five officers of the New York Police Department, charged in connection with the alleged torture of an immigrant Haitian man in August 1997, named Abner Louima. One of them, 27-year-old Justin Volpe, stands accused of ramming a wooden handle up Mr Louima's rectum, causing him serious injury, and then thrusting it into his mouth.

The trial was always going to be ugly. Just how ugly only really became apparent last week, however, when prosecutors brought to the stand several officers who were present in the Brooklyn police station where the abuse is said to have occurred. None had witnessed the actual insertions of the handle into Mr Louima's person, but they offered stomach-turning descriptions of Mr Volpe showing off the offending instrument after the alleged abuse, pointing out excrement stains and asking colleagues to sniff it.

What the officers told the jury was all the more stunning because of what it said about the so-called "blue wall of silence" that members of the NYPD have traditionally preserved to protect their own from investigation by Internal Affairs and the courts outside. Officers who snitch are called "rats". Last week, that code was starting to crumble. "What the hell is this?," former New York police commissioner William Bratton recalled exclaiming as he watched television news accounts of the proceedings. "I still don't see the walls of Jericho coming tumbling down here, but some of the bricks are starting to weaken."

The case has galvanised the whole city (forget news about Kosovo) because it touches its most sensitive nerves: race relations and the issue of how its predominantly white police force conducts itself among minorities. (All five officers on the stand are white.) The trial's political impact has been compounded, moreover, by its near coincidence with another shocking incident this February: the killing by four white officers of an unarmed West African immigrant called Amadou Diallo.

Both cases are serving to rob the NYPD and New York's famously abrasive mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, of what should have been a time of glory. Since 1992, levels of serious crime in the city, including murders, have fallen by more than two thirds. For a while it was fashionable to attribute the transformation to the policy of "zero tolerance" - cracking down on all forms of crime, no matter how petty - championed by Mr Giuliani and exercised for him by his men in blue. But if officers treat zero tolerance as a licence to trample on civil rights, the policy will be discredited.

It is a reversal of perception - though it may not be universal - that threatens Mr Giuliani in particular. Now in his second term, he has emerged as a serious contender for higher office, precisely because of his success on issues of crime and "quality of life". The country in recent weeks has been pondering a scenario next year where Mr Giuliani battles statewide for a senate seat with the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as his opponent. As her entry into the race seems more likely with each passing day, his own prospects are suddenly less certain.

So far, it is the Diallo case that has caused him the most damage. Early on 5 February the four officers approached a figure in a Bronx apartment doorway they thought fitted the description of a wanted rapist. It seems that Mr Diallo reached for a wallet and the officers thought the wallet was a gun. They fired 41 shots into that doorway, of which 19 struck the young African, killing him.

There followed weeks of angry protests orchestrated by the veteran black rights leader the Rev Al Sharpton. The demonstrations, which led to the arrests of hundreds, including Mr Sharpton and the actress Susan Sarandon, subsided only when charges were filed against the four in April. Their trial is pending. The NYPD found itself the object of scorn, and morale plummeted. Mr Giuliani was lambasted for at first ridiculing the protesters before moving slowly to a grudging acknowledgement that racism might exist among the police, and that it needed to be addressed.

And now comes the Louima trial. Once again, Mr Sharpton has been leading protests on behalf of Mr Louima, 32. The "dream team" of lawyers from the days of the OJ Simpson saga - Barry Scheck, Johnnie Cochran and Peter Neufeld - rushed like moths into the TV lights to represent the family of Mr Diallo. Now they are helping Mr Louima.

"I can't recall a time when you had two such immense cases of police misconduct unfolding at the same moment in a big city," said Paul Chevigny, a professor of law at New York University. "And the Louima case is almost without precedent. It's like something you'd hear in a Third World dictatorship."

Mr Louima was picked up early on 9 August 1997 during a melee outside a nightclub. Mr Volpe is accused of taking the handle of a broom or mop to his rectum and mouth in a lavatory in the Brooklyn precinct station. (He was later admitted to hospital with tears between his bowel and bladder.) Another officer, Charles Schwarz, is charged with holding Mr Louima down. Two others are accused of helping to beat him in the squad car on the journey to the station. Prosecutors say the fifth officer tried to have the incident covered up.

Among those on the stand last week was Kenneth Wernick, a sergeant, who recalled Mr Volpe telling him what he had done as he emerged from the lavatory. "He said he took a stick and put it five or six inches" into Louima's rectum, he said, "and took it out and put it around his mouth and teeth area, kind of like he was showing it to him". Sgt Wernick spoke of Mr Volpe parading the stick through the station, pointing it at an officer's face and saying, "Smell this. Smell this."

It may be weeks before the trial's conclusion. There is some concern that if Mr Volpe is acquitted, anger could boil over in the streets in New York in the way the beating of Rodney King triggered the Los Angeles riots seven years ago. If he is found guilty, he could be sentenced to life in prison.