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Show of Force

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The commander says that to understand cop culture and the station-house rules that cops live by and judge one another by, you should think of the Rodney King video. That grainy image, which has been shown thousands of times and seared into the contemporary psyche, is of several cops beating King while a larger group of cops stands around watching. Though they would never beat King, or anyone else, themselves, they made no attempt to stop what they saw or to report it.

"The cops who do their job professionally and don't walk around with an attitude are silent," the former commander says, sitting in a plush conference room at the Manhattan company where he now works. "They're silenced in precinct station houses everywhere. They never speak up. Whenever there's a discussion about any issue, you'll never hear the voice of restraint, you'll never hear the positive voices about police work or about the community. That cop has got to remain silent. To do otherwise would mean he becomes a danger to his fellow cops. Then he's ostracized. 'If he can think that way,' cops believe, 'he can go against us.'

"You can, however, do your job without violence," he continues, "just like all the cops standing around in the Rodney King video. They don't need you to participate. But you've got to be perceived as somebody who's on the team. When you go out on patrol, you're gonna be involved in situations where you're gonna call for assistance, and you want to know people are gonna come. Believe me," he says, "the insularity at the Seven-oh will get deeper now. The cops are gonna become even more concerned about being one."

These station-house rules are, of course, the foundation for the famed—and, judging by the lack of witnesses at the 70th Precinct, still largely impenetrable—blue wall of silence. Though many people, including the mayor and Police Commissioner Howard Safir, were quick in the days immediately following the attack on Abner Louima to proclaim that the blue wall had finally been cracked, it was not true. Only two cops came forward—and none since—and the wall has remained intact.

"If I were Turetzky [the first of the two cops to give a statement], I'd be afraid of what the future holds," says the sergeant, more in sympathy than in anger. "There's no way he could ever be a street cop again. No matter how right it was to come forward, he's still a rat. You gotta have trust. What should've happened is that someone in the precinct should've stopped it. If it was Volpe, one of the other guys on duty that night should've stopped him. Someone should've taken the prisoner away from him. They should've realized what was happening. But they probably thought he was just gonna lay some hands on the guy," he says.

"I mean, it happens in the street all the time. You know you got a cop who's pulse is at 120, his blood's pounding, his adrenal glands all swelled up, and he's on overdrive from the pressure. So he gets his two shots in, but by the third there'll be someone there telling him it's over, putting an arm around him and telling him to relax. Sometimes it's not easy. The cop's so torqued up he doesn't even hear you or recognize you. And you're there like, 'Hey, it's me, Frankie. It's over, all right?' And you've got to say it a few times and maybe even shake 'em a little before it connects."

The sense almost all cops share that they're out there all alone every day and have only one another to depend on is what breeds the us-versus-them attitude that many cops wear like protective armor and that is so corrosive to their relationships with the communities they work in. It enables the cops to dehumanize the people they come into contact with, and once that happens—as the worst cases of police abuse always demonstrate—just about anything is possible. But cops don't develop this attitude in a vacuum, and despite what many people choose to believe, most of them don't arrive with it when they enter the police academy. It develops over time, in the street and in the station house.

Cops are not taught at the academy how to respond to the negative aspects of policing. No one prepares them for the most difficult situations they'll actually confront when they're on the street. "The academy doesn't do this," says the former precinct commander, "because it would be difficult to teach cops about the ineffectiveness of the criminal-justice system. It would also be difficult to teach them that there are members of the community who will attack them verbally and physically and even on occasion try to frame them when they're trying to do their job. The academy doesn't teach the negative realities that every cop will face because they're so afraid of the race card and they're afraid to talk to cops candidly about what actually goes on in a precinct."


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