Officers bring down blue wall of silence

Breakthrough: New York's finest stand up in court and speak out in Louima case, finally.

June 10, 1999

IF ANY solace can be taken from the case of Abner Louima, it lies in the decisions of several New York police officers to step through the so-called blue wall of silence with a measure of truth. Their choice holds hope for restoration of trust.

Even before the defense of Patrolman Justin A. Volpe seemed certain to collapse, several of his fellow officers recounted what he told them on the night of the assault against Mr. Louima. What they said supported much of what the victim had been saying for a year before the trial. Volpe, hoping to minimize his time in jail, quickly confessed to his wretched crime.

A second officer, Charles Schwarz, was convicted Tuesday of restraining the handcuffed Mr. Louima while Volpe pushed a broken broom handle into Mr. Louima's rectum, inflicting horrendous internal injuries. Three other officers were acquitted. From the day of the assault to the moment when Volpe's colleagues stepped forward, it was Mr. Louima vs. an Establishment -- City Hall, the police union -- determined to protect itself. Mr. Louima and his allies suffered through a year in which the powerful forces portrayed Mr. Louima as the perpetrator. Volpe's lawyer, Marvyn Kronberg, a veteran of such trials, put Mr. Louima on trial: his injuries, Mr. Kronberg suggested, were caused by homosexual sex.

But then, after the wall of silence was breached, Volpe confessed. Yes, he said, he had brutalized Mr. Louima and boasted of "breaking" a man. Chilling questions emerge from these accounts: Was Volpe the inventor of this torture, or had he learned it from others? Is there some value in police culture to "breaking a man"? Or was Volpe looking for approval of his unspeakable crime by speaking of it?

How could someone with this sort of depraved indifference make it through the screening designed to weed out such personalities? Do low pay, low esteem, dangerous work and lack of respect from citizens make police jobs hard to fill -- and lower the standards for recruits?

These are among the questions that must be asked and answered, not just in New York, but in police departments everywhere.

Politicians as well as police officials need to take all of them seriously -- and be ready for the outcry that will come with straight talk about the high cost of professional policing.

Meanwhile, let us honor those officers who risked the scorn of their peers to do the decent thing.

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