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An Officer and an Atrocity

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After Sergeant Hargrove from Internal Affairs interviewed Louima in the hospital on Sunday night and heard his horrifying story, he immediately went to the 70th Precinct and declared the bathroom a crime scene. In no time, the precinct was swarming with investigators. Though Volpe and Bruder were off that night, Wiese and Schwarz were working. Records show they took their meal break at 4 a.m. in the precinct, so they must have seen what was going on.

They left the station at 5:08, and a little more than an hour later -- at 6:16, to be precise -- a six-minute phone call was made from a pay phone at Brooklyn College to Justin Volpe's house. The call was charged to Charles Schwarz's phone card. The prosecutors argued very convincingly that this was a smoking gun. Schwarz sees investigators ripping the precinct apart looking for evidence, knows Louima told them what happened, and as soon as he's back on the street he calls his fellow sex torturer to tell him there's trouble. It worked beautifully in court. After the trial, Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer interviewed several jurors who told him the phone call was a key in their decision to convict Schwarz.

There's only one small problem: Wiese says he made the phone call. Not only did the jury not know this, but they also weren't told that Bruder was called first, before Volpe. Wiese says he borrowed Schwarz's phone card to fulfill his obligations as the PBA delegate. He saw there was a problem at the precinct, he saw investigators searching their lockers, and he was calling Volpe and Bruder to give them a heads-up. (In those first days, Bruder, as Volpe's partner, was a primary suspect.)

Kornberg says it was indeed Wiese who made the critical phone call to Volpe, but not in his role as the union rep. "The reason Wiese made that call was, he wanted to discuss with Volpe what transpired with the two of them in the bathroom that night. And Volpe wouldn't have any part of it. He didn't want to discuss it on the phone, and at that point, he thought Wiese might be wired."

As with any criminal case of this magnitude, there were those who saw it as an opportunity to advance their own agenda, to achieve something other than simple justice. It was clear from his public statements, and the way the case was handled, that U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter wanted to set the world right. He wanted to send a chill through the NYPD regarding both brutality and the blue wall of silence.

Mayor Giuliani, on the other hand, who had built his entire public career on law and order and who had presided over the largest decrease in crime in the city's history, needed to send a different message. His failure to take the Police Department's success to the next level by developing a strategy to improve police-community relations now threatened to turn his greatest success into his greatest failure. He needed to calm people's fears, to convince them his police were not being allowed to run amok.

And for the Reverend Al Sharpton, the case was a tailor-made opportunity to try to awaken the city's protest movement, which had been in hibernation more or less since the first year of Mayor Giuliani's first term.

But on June 8, when the jury delivered its verdicts, it was clear that this case was, in the end, really only about the barbaric brutalization of Abner Louima and the tragic fate of a handful of flawed Brooklyn cops. When he was pronounced guilty, Schwarz stood and stared at the prosecutors, the rage in his eyes visible even in the back of the court. Wiese, on the other hand, was in tears. Though he had been acquitted of beating Abner Louima, he was devastated that his partner was going to prison. "How could this happen?" he asked Tacopina over and over again. And his lawyer told him, "I know what you're thinking, but you're going home today. It's terrible that Chuck's going to jail, but it wasn't an either-or."

We may never know if what Wiese was thinking that day was that Schwarz was going to jail for something he did. But even if he was thinking only that he tried to tell the prosecution what had happened and they wouldn't listen, it is clear that there are no real good guys in this story.

It's true that Justin Volpe put the other cops at the 70th Precinct that night, particularly Charles Schwarz, Thomas Wiese, and Thomas Bruder, in an untenable position. Once events began to unfold, there were no good choices. But certainly there were right ones. If this had been a test of some kind, no one in the 70th Precinct would have earned much better than a barely passing grade. Justin Volpe may be the only truly guilty party here, but no one was truly innocent. Innocent is when the DNA proves you're not the rapist, that it was a terrible case of mistaken identity. Innocent is when you didn't do anything. Not when you were there and somebody else did it and you didn't report it, and you didn't quite tell the truth about it later, and maybe you even helped cover it up.

"When the first trial was over," says Joseph Tacopina, "I felt for a moment like I'd won the World Series of trials. But there was no celebration. This case will never be one I can look back on as a highlight. There's just been too much suffering and too much tragedy. This case has taken a tremendous toll on everybody who's been involved in it."

What happened to Abner Louima was an abomination. This was a police precinct, after all, and these men were police officers. The city -- not to mention Abner Louima -- has a right to expect better. No one who was in the station house that night should escape accountability. Still, there is reason to believe -- reasonable doubt, and more -- that Charles Schwarz may not have behaved much differently than any of the other cops who were swept up in the chaos that night. Should he share the same fate as Justin Volpe? In the end, that would not be justice, either.


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