NEW YORK — Dozen cops are chatting outside the Midtown South Precinct on West 35th Street. But when the Louima case comes up, the conversation stops. Three clench their lips and shake their heads. Others fold their arms across their chest. "We're not talking about it, and I don't think anyone here will," says one. "Why don't you try Midtown North? They like to talk up there."
Officer Justin Volpe's admission this week that he brutalized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in a Brooklyn precinct bathroom in 1997, as well as the testimony from fellow cops that led to the confession, is rattling police from New York to California.
It's exacerbating tense relations between white and black officers, and producing different views of its impact on the "blue wall" of silence that historically rises around officers charged with misconduct.
For some, like Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir, the decision by four cops to testify against Officer Volpe proves the wall has been irrevocably cracked, marking the beginning of a fundamental change in a closed police culture known for scorning "rats."
But they are in the minority. Police experts and others around the country say the officers' testimony was simply a response to the horrific nature of the attack and pressure from the brass to come forward - a clear case of talk or be punished.
"The sad fact is that there will always be a code of silence, as there will be with lawyers, doctors, and tobacco executives, although it's probably stronger for police," says Joseph McNamara, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and a retired deputy inspector at the New York Police Department (NYPD).
More mortar in the 'blue wall'
Indeed, many in the minority community believe the wall was actually reinforced with a little extra mortar by Volpe's refusal Tuesday to identify the other officer who was with him in the bathroom. "This is an indication that the blue wall of silence is absolutely as strong as ever," says Sgt. Anthony Miranda, president of the Latino Officers Association in New York.
Police experts say the wall is the product of a tightly knit culture that distrusts politicians, the media, and even its own leadership as officers undertake a dangerous and seemingly impossible job. When they make a mistake, cops think they can rely only on one another for protection.
"The penal code gives a cop the right to defend himself using reasonable force, but what's reasonable in a moment of real danger to a cop who thinks he's in trouble and what's reasonable in a courtroom can often be open to interpretation," says Mr. Miranda. "The thing that haunts all cops is that, in defending their own life or someone else's, they could end up going to jail."
A veteran Los Angeles officer says instances of cops covering up for one another are not as widespread as some portray. But he admits it happens and says it is more likely the result of "misguided loyalty" to a partner.
"You have to be ready to count on them to save your life. You work the streets together, investigate together, often testify together. And you frequently see each other off duty. You're with your partner more than you are with your spouse," he says. "But if you see your partner do something wrong, that's when you have to take the high moral ground. It's the only choice."
But others say that seldom happens. Veteran defense lawyer Joel Berger says, in more than a decade of dealing with police misconduct cases in New York, only once has an officer testified against his partner.
"99.9 percent of all police officers who see a fellow officer engaging in misconduct will look the other way and not report it," says Mr. Berger. "How come that cop felt secure enough in the police precinct that they could do that [to Abner Louima]?"
Mr. McNamara, who's studying the NYPD, believes the situation in New York has been exacerbated by political pressure to increase arrest and conviction rates. It's so intense, he says, that cops joke about "testi-lying" to meet quotas. "The cops think, 'The mayor and the police commissioner have no problem with us lying when it's for their benefit, so what's the difference in lying about how I got drug evidence and saying I didn't see another cop hit the prisoner?' "
Others say one of the contributing factors to the protective culture is that most police departments are organized like military institutions - which raises problems.
"The military organizational model is designed for places where all of the big decisions are made at the top and the people at the bottom work as a group and exercise very little discretion, and that's not what happens in policing," says James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. "The big decisions - the ones that cause city administrations to fall and cause riots to occur - are made at the bottom of police organizations, generally by cops who are working alone or with one or two other people."
Mr. Fyfe says cops should be trained and equated more with social workers, school teachers, and parole officers because what they're doing is exercising discretion and "dealing one on one with real tough human problems."
Frank Serpico, who was forced to leave the NYPD after he exposed corruption in the department in the early 1970s, doesn't believe the department has changed much in the past 30 years. "Why does the blue wall exist? Because there's a code that says, 'Keep your mouth shut and you will be taken care of,' " he says. "The hierarchy does not take proper action to support the officers that do come forward."
Few believe the officers who did come forward in the Louima case will face the same retribution as Mr. Serpico and others who've exposed corruption in the past. They left departments because of threats and harassment. The sense is that the crime committed by Volpe was so severe and the pressure so intense from the top that the officers had no choice but to tell.
Some hope their example will help change the culture - but the change will have to come from the top. "The attitude has got to be that the guy who doesn't report it is just as guilty as the guy who does it," says Berger.
*James Blair contributed to this report from Los Angeles.