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Show of Force


The suspect's family, however, felt differently about it. They filed a civilian complaint against the officer, not for the punches meted out inside the station house but for the fractured leg he got during the chase. At a hearing, the complaint was dismissed as unsubstantiated because the injured man himself refused to give a statement (the cop says this is because he treated him decently once the confrontation was over). So the essential questions remained officially unanswered. Was this reasonable use of force by a police officer? Or was it excessive? And what about the blows in the back of the precinct? Is retaliation by a cop ever justified?

In fact, in the real world of police work, these are the kinds of use-of-force issues that need to be dealt with. Rarely, despite the handful of highly publicized cases, are severe beatings, shootings, or sickening acts like the violation of Abner Louima a significant factor in the interactions between cops and civilians. (In 1996, there were 5,596 civilian complaints, but according to one former insider, fewer than 100 in any given year involve a claim that any substantive medical attention was needed.)

"Look, I talked to every single cop I know," says one former high-level member of the department, "to try and find out if anyone had ever heard of anything like this plunger attack. And I assure you that if it was the kind of thing that cops called a No. 63 or something, and it was done twice a year, I would've been told."

But while the savage attack on Abner Louima was an aberration, it has focused intense attention from all quarters on the way cops do their job. In my conversations with current and former police officers, both those on patrol and those at the highest levels of command, police brutality tended to be divided into two categories, each raising complex and disturbing issues.

"If someone disses you, you take him in an alley and slap him. If it's known in the street you can be stepped on, you've got a problem."

One is the everyday, run-of-the-mill use of force—like the beating doled out by the cop in the Bronx—that cops truly believe is necessary to control their environment. The other is a culture of more extreme brutality that seems to exist in some precincts, like the 70th. Born of an us-versus-them attitude, it can, where supervision is weak, fester and become impacted, allowing a horror like the Louima case to happen. It is a deeper, darker, more inaccessible problem than "tactical" beatings. And left unattended, it periodically produces—whether in "Giuliani Time" or Dinkins Time or Koch Time—acts of outrageous brutality (the stun-gun case in 1985, and Officer Bernard Cawley, "the Mechanic," made famous during the Mollen Commission hearings, who had a reputation for beating people with lead-lined gloves).

The critical question for the mayor's task force is not the plunger attack per se; this will be dealt with in the courts. Instead, the commission needs to look at the pathologies in the 70th Precinct and throughout the department that allowed a few cops to think they could do such a thing and get away with it.

A good place to start would be with the general hostility toward the police felt in some communities, which is most often the result of smaller, less epic confrontations. It's an angry cop losing sight of where to draw that thin blue line between reasonable and excessive force. It's the extra one or two or three whacks beyond what's needed to control a situation. It's callously tightening down the cuffs to intentionally cause pain and injury to show who's boss (one expert estimates that as many as 20 percent of all force complaints involve the use of handcuffs). It's hitting a suspect after he's cuffed and restrained, when he no longer poses a threat. Though some cops told me the rule of the street is that once the cuffs are on it's over, others disagreed. "He's yours until he's standing in front of the desk sergeant," one cop told me, "and believe me, that includes the ride to the station."

It's a cop pushing, poking, or grabbing someone too aggressively. It's cursing, using racial epithets, or engaging in any form of serious verbal disrespect. These are the sorts of indignities that minority communities most often suffer at the hands of the police.

In the street, cops view intimidation and retaliation as critical parts of their arsenal, no less important than their nightstick, their radio, or their gun. A cop with more than twenty years on the force before he retired put it this way: "If you work in an A-house [a high-crime, high-activity precinct], it's the rules of the jungle. If someone disses you, you take him in an alley, slap him in the mouth, and tell him, 'Hey, fucko, don't you ever talk to me like that again in public.' If it's known in the street that you can be stepped on, you've got a big problem."


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