Monday, December 21, 2015
What's the Matter with the Cops?
I’m in my living room watching the video of this Chicago cop shooting this black kid sixteen times, all but two shots fired at him while he’s down-and-out on the pavement. There are six other cops right there next to the shooter, their guns out, too, probably, but they don’t fire. Laquan McDonald, age 17, was by himself running in the middle of a highly-trafficked street with a pen knife in his hand. This occurred a year ago but it’s news today because the public just got to see a video of the shooting, captured by the camera installed on a police car. I’m betting some cop is in Dutch for forgetting to turn off that camera because that video is the evidentiary lynchpin making a reluctant Chicago Criminal Justice System (pun intended) charge the killer-cop with intentional Murder.
And that’s what he is: a killer-cop. I know this from 20 years as a Patrolman and Patrol Supervisor in the police precincts of New York City and an abiding interest since in police doings. To the initiated, the telltale signs are always there; for example, only that cop fired at the young man, then emptied his gun at him though already out-of-action on the ground—all this mayhem within seconds of getting out of his patrol car. Typically, the killer-cop is not an unknown quantity to the other officers with whom he works day-to-day nor to his sergeants who must file periodic evaluations of his performance. Without a doubt, the Chicago cop has history.
He is not alone nor a rarity. His brothers (apparently, membership exclusively male) are practicing everywhere in the country, primarily in big cities: New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia New Orleans, and others yet to be reported on the TV news channels. The virtually universal source of revelation of their deeds is the cell phone cameras used by civilian witnesses to record the interactions between the cop and his victim. Rarely is the action recorded by a patrol car dashcam, as happened in the Chicago shooting, because they’re routinely rendered inoperable if the car’s occupants have that discretion.
Why, I wondered, do all these civilians, typically uninvolved in the action, feel compelled to intervene remotely in a violent, unfolding event? Are they all just frustrated newspaper reporters like “Brenda Starr, Star Reporter” from the Sunday comic strips of my boyhood? Nah! I think they know, in the depths of their being, that otherwise the truth of what really happened will not be told. The police will lie, both the killer-cop and his brother officers who are under the duress of their work ethic to support him by word and deed. Back in the Bad Old ‘80s in the NYPD there were Narcotics cops who worked in teams that were designated “TNT”, the acronym for Tactical Narcotics Teams. To us lawyers who tried cases in the criminal courts, they were more familiarly known as the Tell-No-Truth cops. Their successor generation coined the term “testilying” to describe police testimony in Court under oath.
It’s P.C. to denounce and bemoan the Blue Wall of Silence as if the reluctance of policemen to inform on their fellows (as the police view it) is indefensible, unreasonable. Truth is, it’s a human reaction born of a comradery that must and will always exist among workers in a dangerous profession who must rely upon one another for mutual support—what motivates soldiers on a battlefield.
The problem for the rest of us, including government types who insist upon (and may or may not really want to know) the unvarnished truth, is that it’s hard to get at. Not surprisingly, the six Chicago policemen who witnessed the execution of Laquan McDonald by their brother officer, when interviewed by their superiors, echoed in their written statements some or all of the shooter’s claimed justifications, clearly contradicted by the video. One doubts that the Chicago Police Department or the Mayor were any more committed to the truth than the rank-and-file cop witnesses.
I don’t condemn the police, even those reluctant Chicgao cop witnesses. I regard them as victims, too, of the shooter. Killer-cops are employed in unknown numbers in Police Departments throughout the U.S., arguably even in the FBI that after internal investigations of 170 shootings of “subjects“ has yet to find a “bad shooting”. Killer-cops invariably bring down, destroy the lives of their comrades who covered up for them. Indictments for perjury or worse, loss of employment and pension, jail, are often the fate of lying cops.
A smattering of the NYPD experience with a few of the notorious killer-cops is instructive.
In 1994, Police Officer Francis Livoti killed Anthony Baez, while using his nightstick to choke Baez into submission in the course of arresting him for throwing a football on a Bronx street that struck the windshield of Livoti’s patrol car. Robert Johnson, the long-tenured Bronx District Attorney, unhesitatingly indicted the cop for Depraved Indifference Murder. Livoti elected to be tried by a single Judge rather than a jury (the routine choice of police facing felony charges, invariably in the Bronx where juries are regarded as anti-police). Livoti was ultimately acquitted by the Judge but fired by the Police Department after an administrative trial that found him guilty for the same conduct that was the subject of the criminal trial.
The Police Department procedures have been found by the Courts to be “civil in nature”: consequently, not Double Jeopardy under the Constitution. The U.S. Attorney had entered the picture, indicting Livoti for Violating Anthony Baez’ Civil Rights by taking his life. After trial, Livoti was found guilty and sentenced to 7-1/2 years in Federal prison. No one was taking cell phone videos in those days, but what stands out in my recollections of the Livoti case is one of the trial witnesses: a policewoman who was at the scene whose testimony at the trial put the lie to the defendant’s version of events. She suffered the shameful, usual consequences for telling the truth out loud about wrongdoing by a fellow officer: ostracized by her fellow cops on the Job, under the blind eye of her bosses. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil: a motto too many police departments live by.
Eerily, Eric Garner’s death last year on Staten Island in New York City echoed the Livoti case in salient details. Police were trying to arrest Garner for selling “loosie” cigarettes in a public park, a trivial, ticketable offense. Five cops piled on Garner to take him off his feet for handcuffing. The last one to pile on, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, applied the Department-banned chokehold to the neck of the much larger man, who choked to death. Unlike Livoti, it was all recorded on a bystander’s cell phone. Unlike Livoti, there was no trial. Although the Staten Island District Attorney presented the case to a grand jury, the jurors voted “No True Bill” (meaning no cop was found to have committed a crime). New York City cops and firemen are overwhelmingly represented in the residential population of Staten Island, known as the most politically conservative borough in the City. Despite the fact that Officer Pantaleo had a considerable history of civilian complaints for use of excessive force in making arrests, none had been proven to the satisfaction of the NYPD.
A readily discernable fact about the killer-cops is that they’re emotionally bent—shrapnel bombs waiting to explode. The fellow policemen they work alongside know it and pray they’re not nearby when it happens. Knowing nothing about that Chicago cop, I predict that he was a disciplinary problem known to his fellow officers and, tragically, to the police supervisors who over 14 years refused to get rid of him when they could. It is always the background in these cases. Virtually, the only reliable indicator of this sort of over-the-top violent behavior is on-the-Job conduct. To a man, the killer-cops have demonstrated it.
In Cleveland, Ohio in November, 2014, Police Officer Timothy Loehmann shot to death a 12-year-old boy within two seconds of getting out of his patrol car. The boy was in a public park waving around a BB-gun that looked like a .45 handgun. Significantly, Loehmann, a recent hire by the Cleveland PD, had a brief career with a smaller department just prior, which was about to fire him for “breaking down emotionally while handling his firearm on the training range” when he resigned. He then applied to four other local police agencies who rejected him before being hired by the Cleveland PD. No action yet by the local prosecutors.
In New York City on August 9, 1997, Officer Justin Volpe sodomized Abner Louima, a Hatian immigrant, in the bathroom of a Brooklyn Precinct with a broken broomstick. Louima was arrested during a free-for-all outside a Flatbush nightclub in that Haitian neighborhood. Volpe thought, mistakenly, that Louima was the man who punched him in the street. The U.S. Attorney immediately took jurisdiction, and indicted Volpe for the assault, along with three other cops who’d been with Volpe in the street and in the station house. Louima could only positively identify Volpe, and no cop corroborated the victim’s testimony or gave evidence against Volpe despite tremendous pressure from the federal prosecutors.
In the end, Volpe’s three co-defendants were acquitted in a jury trial while Volpe, during the trial, elected to plead guilty to Violating (Louima’s) Civil Rights, to avoid a life sentence. He was sentenced to 30 years in Federal prison; one co-defendant, Charles Schwarz, was convicted of perjury and served five years. Two other officers—not assigned to the 70th Precinct but present there that night while processing an arrest—were indicted by the Feds for perjury: essentially, they said they didn’t see what happened in the bathroom nor overheard any incriminating statements, but the prosecutors were intent on sending a message.
One cop pled guilty and went to prison; the other went to trial and, convicted, also went to prison. Both convictions were later reversed, the indictments dismissed, the cops freed, but not reinstated to employment by the Police Department. Officer Volpe was a known steroid abuser, whose violent outbursts should have given ample notice to his fellow cops and supervisors of what lay in store for them all. On a prior occasion when being dressed down by his Squad Sergeant in private, he exploded, flinging chairs about the room. No corrective action or punishment followed.
A moral here? A caution? The wages of sin for a loyal silence or, worse, lying under oath to protect a killer-cop, is more and more likely to be loss of career and/or prison, i.e. life-destroying. When will the good cops get the message?
© 2015 Robert Knightly