A committed young cop with twelve years on the force told me it's all about establishing your territory, about setting the rules. "I know we're supposed to be society's peacekeepers," he said, "but it's not exactly civilized out there most of the time. So perps have to know that if they give a cop a hard time—if they run or if they take a swing—they're gonna pay for it. It's that simple. I don't want to sound dramatic," said the cop, who's a sergeant, "but a guy in the street's gotta know the rules. He's gotta know if he touches me, he's gonna get lumped up. Because he'll be back. That's one thing you can count on—they all come back. Five times, six times, some of them even fifteen or twenty times. And if he goes unpunished physically, maybe next time he ups the ante. Maybe next time he uses a pipe or a knife or something."
Like every cop I spoke to, the sergeant agreed to talk only if guaranteed anonymity. Now is a particularly sensitive time for a cop to say publicly that he's hit a suspect. And it's Rudy Giuliani's Police Department, in which promising careers have been derailed when officers speak publicly about almost anything without permission—and permission is rarely granted. "Look," the sergeant continued, perhaps thinking about his kids, "the name of the game every day for a cop is to sign out. You gotta get home. You wanna do your job, make your collars, and go back to your family.
"We have no interest in extended contacts or confrontations. But you have to remember, even though most arrests are uneventful because most perps know they're never gonna win the war, there's still that 5 to 10 percent that're a problem. And if the department is making over 300,000 arrests a year, like it is now, that's at least 40 problems every day.
"Okay," he said with a significant sigh, "have I laid hands on people? Sure, absolutely. But this thing in the Seven-oh . . . man, I don't know anyone in the department who knows what the fuck that's all about. Punching a guy's lights out is one thing, but this is just sick. And now, because of this, it's like racism against the cops. We're all guilty, we all get painted with the same brush."
The mayor and the police commissioner need to take a long, hard look at the factors that created the environment in which an incident like the one at the 70th Precinct could take place, factors that directly relate to the way cops are trained, broken in, and managed. For while the particular kind of violence inflicted on Abner Louima was extraordinary, the events surrounding it—from the alleged blows he took before he got to the precinct to the light supervision at the Seven-oh that night—were not. Consider how many boundaries had to be crossed, not only by the cops directly involved but by others as well.
"The cops who committed the act clearly believed they could tell some bogus story and get away with it," one NYPD veteran says. "They weren't worried about the desk sergeant, who was the ranking officer on duty that night. Then the relief cops believed they could walk into the hospital and tell a bogus story. And it appears that reports were even written to cover up what happened, which indicates that supervisors were somehow involved. People want to say the act was an aberration, but everything about it seems to involve the abuse of authority as well as brutality. So clearly there's something more going on here. It certainly looks like cowboy conditions existed at the Seven-oh on the midnight-to-eight tour."
In fact, the late tour has been a chronic problem not only at the 70th Precinct but everywhere. Three years ago, former first deputy commissioner John Timoney fought a bitter, protracted battle with the union to get a rogue cop named Tony Abbate dismissed from the force. Abbate, who worked the late tour and had managed to accumulate 30 civilian complaints and numerous departmental charges in his eleven years on the force, also happened to be the 70th Precinct's union rep. It is no small irony that when Abbate was finally kicked off the force, he was replaced as the Seven-oh's union rep by Damian Volpe, Justin's brother.
Through most of the eighties, all cops worked what's called a three-squad chart, which means they rotated their shifts; they'd work a week of days, a week of four-to-twelves, and a week of midnight-to-eights. However, for at least the past decade, cops with seniority have been able to work one shift regularly. As a result, each shift is now like a different clan.