Police brutality trial reaches a turning point

In mid-case,Officer Justin Volpe pleads guilty to attack on Abner

As the famous blue wall of silence crumbled around him and incriminating evidence piled up, Officer Justin Volpe appeared to have no alternative but to beg the court for mercy.

In an extraordinary development three weeks into one of the most shocking police brutality cases in decades, the New York cop admitted brutally violating Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a broken stick in a Brooklyn precinct bathroom in 1997.

He offered the guilty plea on federal civil rights charges in hopes of avoiding the life sentence that many experts predict Mr. Volpe would face, after fellow officers testified that he brandished the stick on the night of the alleged attack. One claimed Volpe even bragged about bringing "a man down." Volpe's fate is now in the hands of Judge Eugene Nickerson.

For civil rights and other activists, the jury is still out on whether the outcome of the trial and the horrific nature of the alleged attack will change New York's police culture.

"Hopefully, this will create a sea change regarding police and community relations, especially where allegations of police brutality are concerned," says Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "But those of us who've been monitoring this over the years will have to take a wait-and-see attitude."

Mr. Siegel contends that police misconduct is deeply ingrained in New York's police culture with "enormous racial overtones" and that elected officials have "denied or minimized" the problem for years.

Between July 1993 and December 1998, 28,114 complaints were filed at the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Of those, only five percent were substantiated and less than 2 percent resulted in the discipline of an officer.

Since the Louima incident surfaced, New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir has taken steps to improve police conduct. He has increased cultural diversity training, recruited more minorities, and appointed a community board to advise police.

He also praised the officers who came forward to testify against Volpe for their courage. Last week after four officers took the stand to implicate him, Volpe's lawyers asked prosecutors for a plea bargain. They refused, leading him to plead guilty and ask the judge for leniency. Prosecutors say they will oppose it The trial of the four other officers continues.

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