Wall of silence: cracked but not crumbling
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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.