An ex-prosecutor, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has a tough-guy, pro-cop image that has helped him garner credit for the city’s 54% drop in serious crime.
When police and federal officials found the makings of a bomb in a Brooklyn apartment a few weeks ago, the mayor shared the spotlight. He was also smiling for the cameras when police nabbed a group who allegedly had been using deaf Mexicans as virtual slaves to sell trinkets in the subways.
But when a young Haitian immigrant charged that he was tortured by a white patrolman who shoved a bathroom plunger into his rectum, Giuliani was forced to move just as swiftly to show that he could do more than bask in the reflected glory of the city’s police force.
The mayor’s predicament was made pointedly clear when Abner Louima, the Haitian who suffered the alleged attack on Aug. 9 in Brooklyn’s 70th Police Precinct bathroom, said that an attacker told him: “This is Giuliani time, not Dinkins time.” The quote echoed the bitter 1993 mayoral race in which Giuliani defeated David N. Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, using a strong law-and-order campaign.
An investigation has been launched, one policeman has been charged with assault and a second officer was indicted Friday on unspecified charges. Eleven members of the NYPD were transferred or suspended pending investigations.
But questions remain as New York moves into a summer weekend with possibilities of protest marches, and Giuliani faces a publicity avalanche as he gears up for his fall reelection campaign.
On Friday, Giuliani said the “Giuliani time” quote “is utterly contradictory from what I want from the police, from what I require from the police, utterly contradictory with my entire career, which has been devoted to protecting the rights of all people. The remark is as perverted as the alleged act.”
In ordering the reviews of the incident, the mayor wanted to know why a man arrested at a dance hall brawl ended up critically and brutally injured. He wanted to know where the evidence went--there were reports that the plunger is among items that are missing. And Giuliani was asking why it took an hour and a half for an ambulance to take the injured man to a hospital.
“I’d like an explanation for why people sat around while he was suffering and in pain,” an indignant Giuliani told the cameras on Thursday.
Moreover, the mayor visited Louima twice in the hospital where the 30-year-old has been in critical condition and is recuperating from a ruptured bladder and rectum.
By Friday, however, the mayor was also worried about whether the incident would tar the entire 38,000-officer police force.
“I believe that this is a situation in which the reputations of police officers will unfairly be affected,” Giuliani said on his morning call-in radio show. “Prejudice means taking isolated facts, which may be true or untrue, and spreading that out into a gross, irrational over-generalization.”
“Really, the community doesn’t have a grudge against Mr. Giuliani,” said Chantal Pierre-Louis, a spokesman for the Haitian Center in Brooklyn. “But even if we feel he’s really looking into it, we don’t want to just sit and let it pass by. We want to put pressure on them so that the police departments don’t do such things to other people.”
A coalition of Haitian organizations issued a statement charging that the attack “fits a pattern of police brutality against those who do not resemble, speak or behave in a manner similar to what police officers have come to expect.”
Norman Siegel, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told reporters that what happened in Brooklyn “could happen in a dozen other neighborhoods” of the city.
Former Mayor Dinkins sidestepped direct criticism of Giuliani, saying: “I hope the people of our city will demand of our Police Department that they behave in an appropriate manner.” But Democratic mayoral candidate Al Sharpton was not so reticent, telling reporters Friday: “I smell a cover-up.”
The first policeman arrested in the incident was Justin Volpe, 25, who has denied that he attacked Louima in the brutal way described to reporters and investigators. Volpe has a four-year record with the force, and his father is a retired police officer well known in New York for helping track down art-related crimes in the city.
Volpe’s father has said his son, who is white, once dated a black woman and is a tough cop who had never been “mean” or “vindictive.”
A second officer in the 70th Precinct, Charles Schwarz, 31, is the subject of a sealed indictment and is cooperating with the investigation, Police Commissioner Howard Safir said Friday.
Volpe’s lawyer told reporters Friday that he saw no way that his client could get a fair trial, given the storm of publicity about the case.
The level of media attention is also troubling Giuliani’s supporters, who know that August is a time when there is little other news to take over the front pages of New York’s energetic newspapers. The mayor has been far ahead of his Democratic opponents in the polls, but there are many political careers that have been fractured over the mishandling of one event--a riot, an ice storm, a police brutality case.
The New York Times, for example, noted in a front page headline that the “Mayor Who Linked Name to Police Success Is Now Facing a Very Ugly Police Failure.”
The New York Daily News, which has been mostly kind to Giuliani in its editorials, said in one article: “Now the spotlight has turned from the city’s world-famous drop in crime and toward something messier.”
The New York media also reminded viewers and readers that Giuliani ran four years ago on a platform promising to improve the quality of life with stepped-up police enforcement. At the same time, the mayor’s efforts over the last few years to cut back funds and support for independent reviews of police brutality charges have become news once again.
Last year, New York paid $22 million to settle police brutality cases (up from $9.9 million in 1992).
“I think [Giuliani] did a superb job of moving right in and identifying immediately that this was beyond any doubt unacceptable and criminal behavior that violated every norm of democratic policing,” said Gerald Lynch, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
But Lynch, like others, wants the mayor to go deeper. In particular, he suggested that Giuliani should follow a number of top crime commission recommendations that police should have more training and education and longer apprenticeships with older police officers who could root out those who might move from controlling crime to committing it.
Times special correspondent Lisa Meyer contributed to this story.