April 15, 1999
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Easter
in the Haitian community in Brooklyn is a time when people reflect on
the suffering of Christ. (Singing) But this year they also reflected
on the suffering of one of their own: A young immigrant named Abner
Louima, who nearly died two years ago at the hands of New York City
|Abuses of power?|
BETTY ANN BOWSER: On Palm Sunday they heard Monsignor
Rollin Darbouze say they must all work against police brutality.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And they heard him say, when police abused Louima, it was as if they nailed Jesus to the cross. Everyone here knows the Louima story. They relive the images all the time, perhaps because what happened was so brutal. Louima is a 35-year-old Haitian immigrant who in 1997 was arrested during a skirmish outside of a bar. He was taken to this police precinct, where he was savagely beaten by cops in the men's room. At one point, they shoved a blunt instrument up his rectum puncturing his intestines. Louima had no police record. For many people in this working class black community, the message of suffering has special meaning, because they don't see Louima as an aberration. Jean Robert Charles and his younger brother, Junior, say their own father was abused by police. He was arrested after improperly displaying a work permit in his body shop in Brooklyn. Junior Charles says shortly after his father was taken away by police, he mysteriously became ill.
JEAN ULRICK CHARLES, JR.: I received a call from the officer. The officer asked me all kind of questions. Did my father ever have a seizure before? Did he ever have a stroke? Is he taking any medication? I said no. Then he told me my father's at Brooklyn Hospital.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: When he reached the hospital, Junior says his father was in a coma, handcuffed to a gurney.
JEAN ULRICK CHARLES, JR.: And the doctor came out, and the doctor spoke to me. The doctor told me that "The main reason your father is like this is because they used force on him."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Used force to do what?
JEAN ULRICK CHARLES, JR.: Forced to put handcuffs on him. So now -- and the officer was sitting right there reading a newspaper. He told me, "Yes, I used force on your father."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today the senior Charles is still in a coma, and city officials have no comment on the case. Because of their father, the brothers joined the anti-police brutality demonstrations that until recently were a daily event at police headquarters in downtown Manhattan.
(Charles's son): We're protesting, because they put my father in a coma.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What are you going to do?
(Charles's son): I'm protesting until justice is served.
|"One tragic incident."|
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The demonstrations were touched off by the shooting death of an unarmed African immigrant named Amadou Diallo. In February, he was killed in a hail of 41 police bullets while standing in the doorway of his apartment building in the Bronx. He had no police record. Police said Diallo resembled a serial rapist they were looking for. Deputy Police Commissioner George Grasso says the incident was just that: One tragic incident.
GEORGE A. GRASSO, Deputy Commissioner NYPD: The fact that 41 shots were fired is certainly a very troubling aspect of the case; however, overall, the department is very restrained with respect to shots fired. For example, in 1998, on average, approximately one police officer for every 2,000 was involved in a fatal shooting involving a perpetrator. Washington, DC, for example, has a rate some six times higher.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That number, 41, became a symbol of the protests. The demonstrations were organized by black leaders. Hundreds of people, including national political figures and movie stars, volunteered to be arrested. The marches went on for weeks as a protest over what these people believe is a growing pattern of abusive police behavior. The demonstrators called New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani a Nazi and a racist. Then the mayor called the demonstrations "silly" and the arrests "a publicity stunt." And in that atmosphere the mayor went on the defensive.
RUDOLPH GIULIANI, Mayor, City of New York: Since the time of the tragic shooting of Mr. Diallo, over 110 other New Yorkers have been murdered, and all of their lives are equally as important and they weigh heavily on me and the police commissioner, as they do, I think, on everyone.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: People upset over the Diallo shooting fell into two camps that sharply disagreed over police behavior. Brooklyn Attorney Eric Poulos, who specializes in police brutality cases, is suing the city on behalf of the Charles family.
ERIC POULOS, Charles Family Attorney: I think it's a large, large problem, and certainly you can't say it's all 38,000 cops -- of course not -- but it's a larger problem than anybody would acknowledge, and to speak of a few rotten apples is wrong. It's more. It's not a few rotten apples. I think it's thousands of rotten cops. There was a climate, and is a climate now, that among cops that this kind of conduct was -- if they didn't feel explicitly condoned, was at least not going to get them in trouble.
GEORGE A. GRASSO: That's totally false. I've prosecuted, over the course of several years, dozens and dozens of police officers who engaged in rogue activity. Many of them ended up fired with full loss of pension benefits. Many of them ended up in prison having been held accountable by either the state system or the federal system.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ironically, the controversy over police behavior comes during the most crime-free time in the city's recent history. Homicides alone are down 60 percent, and minority neighborhoods have been among those most to benefit. But many of those same minority residents complain the police engage in a systematic policy of harassment against young black males, and they take particular aim at the NYPD's street crime unit. All four of the cops implicated in the Diallo case are members of the elite plainclothes unit, which, like this one, patrols the streets in unmarked cars, looking mostly for drugs and illegal weapons. The NewsHour's request to cover activities of the street crime unit was denied. Critics say the unit's new members lack the training they need for sophisticated street work, and are too aggressive in pursuing suspects based primarily on race. Lieutenant Eric Adams, a member of the department for more than ten years, deplores the use of racial typing.
LT. ERIC ADAMS, 100 Black Men in Law Enforcement Who Care: You know, the profiling takes place daily. We have, in New York City as well as America, we have an image of an ideal criminal, and that ideal criminal, for the most part, fits the ages of the 15- to 21-year-old male black.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Police records show the street crimes unit stopped and frisked 45,000 people over the past two years, but Adams says the number is probably much higher, and overwhelmingly involves young, black males. Jean Robert Charles believes that. He says the cops routinely stop young, black males in his neighborhood for no reasonable cause.
JEAN ROBERT CHARLES: They'll pull you over and say, you know, they're searching for somebody who looks like you; somebody just stole a car. It's always some sort of excuse, you know. You always look like somebody that they wanted.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why?
JEAN ROBERT CHARLES: Because we are colored people here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And you think that's the reason that the police pull people over and frisk them, on the basis of race?
JEAN ROBERT CHARLES: What other reason would you pull me over if my car is legal, I have insurance, registration? I show you my license?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: New York City Councilwoman Una Clarke says she hears stories like that all the time from residents like this woman.
WOMAN: Believe me, I'm so scared when I hear the police sirens. I'm so scared, believe you me, you know, because I drive, you know, so whenever I hear in front and the siren comes on and I say, "Oh, my God, what I did now?"
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Councilwoman Clarke is pleased that overall violent crime is down by one-third in her district, but she questions whether the black community is paying too high a price for it.
UNA S.T. CLARKE, New York City Council: No one wants to take away the fact that crime has gone down, but at what cost and at whose cost? So you have to recognize that crime has gone down. If you ask Louima's family, crime has gone down but how does he feel at the hands of the police? If you ask Carlton Brown, whose back was broken in the 63rd Precinct and who is a paraplegic, if you ask his wife and young child crime has gone down but at what cost?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bill Bratton is the former police commissioner of New York City. It was under his leadership that the big crackdown on crime began in 1994.
WILLIAM BRATTON, Former NY Police Commissioner: It appears that some of what was designed to deal with a city that literally was out of control -- 8,000 people shot in New York City in 1990 -- that the pressure was kept on too long. When the streets -- the mayor describes this as one of the safest large cities in the world. Why are we still continuing tactics that were designed for streets in 1994 when it was one of the most dangerous cities in the world?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the mayor says pressure must be kept on.
RUDOLPH GIULIANI, Mayor, City of New York: Arrests are down dramatically in certain parts of the city and exactly where arrests are down, murders and shootings are up.
SPOKESMAN: As I've mentioned to you in recent weeks and recent days, this is once again one of the difficult times to be a New York City police officer.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the last few weeks, the department has begun making changes. The mayor announced a program to teach cops how to be more polite, and the street crime unit was put back in uniform so members of the public can more easily identify them. But the mayor says change is a two-way street.
RUDOLPH GIULIANI: I think that everybody has to do more. I think I have to do more. I think the police have to do more. And I think that the communities of New York City have to do more in respecting the police. I think that we have to make this journey together, for those of us who are of good will and want to make the journey together, and that ultimately, that's the way in which the city's going to get better.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In an unprecedented action, the four officers in the Diallo case will stand trial on second- degree murder charges. Four New York City cops are already on trial in federal court for violating the rights of Abner Louima. In addition, four federal and state investigations are under way in to New York City police behavior.