Scene from my life: The Blue Wall of Silence

In yesterday’s Times, Timothy Egan published an opinion piece, “The Blue Wall of Silence Is Starting To Crack.”

Although he’s correct to describe the number of policemen who testified for the prosecution against Derek Chauvin as a crack in the Blue Wall, this trial was not the first substantial crack.

In 1998, Abner Louima sued both the City of New York and the powerful police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, for compensation after he’d been brutally assaulted by a number of policemen in a Brooklyn police precinct. (The link above is to the third supplemental summons and complaint. There seem to be a number of missing pages; don’t get paranoid, it’s just a transfer glitch.)

At that time, I was working for Cochran, Neufeld & Scheck, Abner’s lead lawyers; thus, I followed (and assisted, where I could) the case from beginning to end, and went to court to watch the federal criminal trial of the police officers.

The key thing to understand about the Blue Wall of Silence was the infamous “48-hour rule,” part of the NYPD contract with the City, “which requires the New York City Police Department (NYPD) to delay interrogations of ‘subject’ police officers (those who are the subjects of investigations) for 48 hours after police-related events or occurrences.”

In practice, it meant that the Louima cops evaded official NYPD interviews/interrogations for two full days and nights, during which time they called each other and their reps, often from pay phones, numerous times as they cobbled together a story which cloaked their individual participation in the assault.

It didn’t entirely work, largely because of extraordinary investigative work done by the federal prosecutor’s team in the Eastern District of New York.

Then the Abner Louima complaint named the PBA as a defendant in the civil lawsuit.

As Alan Feuer wrote in the New York Times [my bolding]:

While his suit seeks monetary compensation from the city, it reaches for considerably more from another defendant, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which is being asked not only for money but also to change some of its policies.

Mr. Louima’s lawyers have said that the suit breaks legal ground in naming the P.B.A. They say that a police union has never before been held responsible when its members are accused of using excessive force, and that the lawsuit will expose what they say is the union’s encouragement of a blue wall of silence.

While there have been other high-profile police brutality cases in the city’s history, the lawyers have said that they decided to make their claims against the union in the Louima case for one reason: it provides the most egregious recent example of abuse by the P.B.A.

‘It was just pretty clear that the union helps cover up acts of brutality so that the most brazen acts committed by the worst cops would never see the light of day.” said Peter Neufeld who, along with Barry C. Scheck and Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., filed the suit on Mr. Louima’s behalf. ”Our position is that the union is a major player in the problem.”

The PBA objected, of course, to being sued and filed a motion to dismiss the case against them.

I hold dear the memory of the Cochran, Neufeld and Scheck Motion in Objection to the PBA’s Motion to Dismiss — so dear, in fact, I have a copy of the final draft on a CD. It was utterly brilliant, written by appellate lawyer David Goldberg for CNS (us).

It killed. In July 2001, the City and the PBA settled the lawsuit.

The quote I used to define the “48 hour rule” came from a September, 2003, announcement a few years after the Louima case, from New York State’s Supreme Court, which “upholds deletion of 48-hour rule from PBA contract. Court upholds the State Labor Board’s decision that the 48-hour rule — which forbids interrogations for 48 hours of police officers who are subjects of investigations after police-related occurrences — and other disciplinary causes cannot be bargained.”

The 48-hour rule was dead and New York City’s Blue Wall had cracked right down the middle, at least on paper.

But as we’ve all seen and shuddered over in the years since, there is not one single Blue Wall; there are around 18,000 of them. Municipal police departments, sheriff’s offices, state police and highway patrols, and federal law enforcement agencies all have a Blue Wall.

As of 2016, around 12,000 of these Blue Walls were municipal, i.e., local police departments.

Blue Wall cracks may be notable, but should not be noted with great hope, or complacency. I see these walls as medieval castle keeps. I think the only force which will demolish them is overarching federal legislation which would replace the bond of personal loyalty and omertà with a superceding human ethic.







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