The Brutal Trut

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The victim is thin, well-dressed, white. Blood soaks his shirt, mats his hair and blots out his chin. One eye has disappeared behind blue, swollen flesh. He is sitting alone on the subway steps, sobbing. “I gave them my money,” he says. “They did it anyway.”

A black transit cop who had heard the screams echoing underground catches four fleeing teenagers less than three blocks away, but two of them dash off again before the cop starts bellowing out his inclination to blow somebody’s head off. On the ride back to the station house, he gives the two other young black men an introductory lesson in backseat justice.

“What might have gotten me angry?” he asks himself later, recalling a handful of other times he’s used more violence than the job required. “Guns pulled and you’re the target. That can tend to upset you. Group robberies like this one, where after the property has been taken, the victim’ll get beaten just because the bad guys want to see what it looks like, just because they can. I would say those are things that get me upset….We’re paid to defend the weak.”

Another victim is younger, Puerto Rican. He stands with three friends at a bodega in Mott Haven in the Bronx, waiting for the Town Car that will take them to Lower Manhattan and an East River cruise. The streets are rain-soaked and the four are standing under an awning to keep from messing up their best Friday night clothes when a patrol car pulls up, and a pair of cops bound out.

“They tell us to get up against the wall. To me that was no big deal,” says the 19-year-old, who, ironically, is studying law enforcement at a city college. “We get frisked, and they chill out. Everyone’s cool, everyone’s smiling. Then one of them goes, ‘Where are you going tonight?'”

For some reason, one of the cops tenses up when he’s told about the cruise. Suddenly he shouts for them to lie face down on the wet, filthy pavement.

A second search, this time at the point of a nightstick, reveals nothing, but the kids’ clothes are trashed for the night. The four teenagers split up and slink back to their apartments, the $100 they spent on the tickets a total loss.

“The son of a bitch seemed happy. He told me to have a good night,” the victim says. “Sometimes you’re so mad, there’s nothing you can do but laugh about it. You might as well laugh, ‘cos ain’t no use in crying about it.”

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The two instances of brutality, one explicable, the other despicable, point to the basic reality of policing the police in New York City.

Merely setting up a standard of behavior, and punishing transgressors after the fact, as the NYPD has done, will never be enough to stop explosive, emotional behavior on the part of angry cops.

Their job and the city they work in are just too complicated. For the innocent black or Latino kid who simply wants to get from the front door to the curb without automatically being branded a suspect, facing the wrong end of another man’s power trip has become part of life. But from the cops’ perspective, the use of excessive force often arises from being asked to do a violent, confrontational job–and then being told to stop short of an invisible line when your life, reputation or values are threatened.

Reconciling the demands of the job with the needs of the community is the task the NYPD should be undertaking, especially in the wake of the alleged brutalization and sodomy of Abner Louima in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct. But apart from the deeply flawed $15 million “Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect” campaign, the department has done little to attack the problem.

While the country’s most lauded department has become a national model for innovative approaches to attacking street crime, it has failed to adopt important innovations other cities are using to eradicate the problem of in-house violence.

Cops and cop critics recognize that real change will have to focus on prediction and prevention, including a more intense effort to screen out unfit cadets and a much more serious police training regimen.

Even before Louima, some high-ranking NYPD officials realized that something needed to be done about the precinct-house cynicism that engenders violence. Commissioner Howard Safir has dismissed 94 cops for misconduct, many for false testimony. Since Louima, Safir has also ordered that more experienced supervisors run the desk at each station house. And he has floated a plan to break up potentially dangerous, hard-to-supervise cliques that form on the midnight tour.

But police brutality is hard to get a handle on because it is rooted in human emotion–and in the paramilitary culture that many cops consider essential for effective policing. According to many familiar with these efforts, the department still lacks the will, the knowledge or the tools needed to address the problem.

“Most cops really want to do the right thing,” says Jan Holland, a former staffer of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project who has conducted domestic violence trainings at the police academy and local precincts. “The problem is that [the department] cuts themselves off from the information they need. That’s where the Blue Wall comes up. As soon as they enter the academy, their access to information from the outside world basically stops.”

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One fall morning, not long after the arrest of Officer Justin Volpe in connection with the Louima attack, Michael Julian, a key member of former Commissioner Bill Bratton’s brain trust, sat in his office suite replaying the 1991 Rodney King video in his head. “You can see the officers: Some are standing back watching–which is its own problem–but those who were doing the hitting are a different personality. Anyone could have stepped up and kicked him; some don’t.

“How do you identify that person who has the ability to kick somebody when they’re down?”

Julian, who served as the department’s personnel chief until two years ago, is convinced that the best-known brutality cases–including Officer Francis Livoti’s 1994 involvement in the stranglehold death of Anthony Baez in the South Bronx–prove that explosive personalities need to be identified before they are allowed to spin out of control.

When Julian was on the inside, he didn’t think the system’s screening was a major problem, but he now acknowledges it’s far from perfect.

The NYPD’s cadet screening is decidedly not state-of-the-art. Every recruit who passes the department’s written test and medical exam must sit down with one of almost 300 background investigators to answer questions on subjects such as educational experience, past jobs and drug use. “There are lots of people who come in and say the stupidest things. I mean, we had people come in and admit they were drug addicts for three or four years,” says Peter Dowling, a police captain who headed the background investigations unit from 1993 to 1995.

Investigators contact past employers, many of whom are asked merely to confirm employment dates and to mail in any impressions they wish to volunteer about the candidate. The cops on the screening detail, who handle anywhere from 30 to more than 100 cases at any given time, are also supposed to buttonhole five neighbors–but they don’t get around to it until the recruit already has been hired.

Those winning a preliminary green light submit to a battery of standard written psychological tests and an interview with an NYPD psychologist. According to the department, these tests weed out 19 percent of the candidates who make it through the earlier screening by identifying those who reveal they have certain extreme personality traits. A candidate cannot be overly aggressive or overly passive; he or she can’t be labeled a slave to rules or overly independent.

Still, however diligently applied, such screening has consistently failed to identify some of the city’s worst cops. When Officer Michael Dowd was busted as the ringleader of a pack of brutal and criminal coke-snorting East New York patrolmen, a review of the files showed he’d breezed through background checks. “Dowd,” Captain Dowling recalls, “even Dowd came out smelling like a rose.”

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Despite a proliferation of new screening tools in departments around the country, the NYPD continues to rely on subjective psychological analysis and the use of standardized exams, including the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personal Inventory. Although the Minnesota test is good at detecting pathologies, it isn’t nuanced enough to detect more subtle problems.

Some departments use lie detectors during background and psychological interviews. The NYPD doesn’t. And a greater number of departments use decade-old computer programs that assess detailed biographical data on candidates and generate numerical scores predictive of their fitness for police work. But again, the NYPD has avoided implementing such a system. Matthew Guller, an executive at the New Jersey-based Institute for Forensic Psychology, one of several companies around the country that screens personnel for law enforcement agencies, says his 224-page questionnaire can detect hidden psychological flaws in a recruit that even the best interviewer may not pick up.

In the early 1980s, Guller’s father Irving, a former psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, combed hundreds of dissertations and research papers around the country looking for indicators of future police performance. What he found was a direct correlation between certain personal indicators and police brutality. Some were no-brainers: “A problematic history in the military is probably the best indicator,” says the younger Guller, whose company has continued to update the indicators and now performs screening for departments in Newark, Jersey City, suburban Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Some indicators were less obvious. For some reason, cops with two or more tattoos showed propensities toward violence. Strong clues emerged from driving records. Three accidents in three years indicated an instability that was correlated to bad behavior. As if for fairness, “Were you ever a member of the Boy Scouts?” is also included on the survey.

Matthew Guller emphasizes the importance of constantly plumbing the records of bad cops for indicators the screening didn’t pick up. On the latter point, the NYPD seems to be coming up to speed. The National Institute of Justice has begun comparing the files of 2,600 randomly selected city cops with records of the 2,600 who’ve been forced off the job over the last three decades, looking for violence and corruption predictors.

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But taking better stock of a recruit’s past behavior isn’t enough, critics charge. The NYPD needs to pay far closer attention to the way a young cop performs.

In 1976, the San Jose, California, police department pioneered a program in which probationary officers spend the first six months of their careers sweating through daily evaluations with specially selected training officers. More often than not, the relationships between vets and young cops is supportive–but one out of every 10 recruits ends up kicked off the force based on poor performance.

“If you ask the NYPD, they’ll tell you they have all these things. In fact, they’re not for real,” says ex-NYPD Officer Joseph McNamara, San Jose’s former police chief. “What you see happening is people who should have been terminated in the probationary period are not.”

Matthew Guller takes the probation concept one step further. He says any cop who commits a violent offense–no matter how minor, on or off the job–should be placed on a rookie-type probationary period with a San Jose-style mentoring and penalty program. Currently, the department has not implemented such a system.

“The trouble with the NYPD and a lot of other large departments is that they think that they are the world, and ego keeps them from looking at things other departments are doing,” adds McNamara, now a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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In spite of a long record of alleged brutality, none of the NYPD’s screening systems worked on Francis Livoti. On paper he looked promising enough. He was ambitious, smart, articulate. He was even one of the few white cops in the Bronx who lived in the borough. But Livoti hated a lot of things about his job. He hated senseless directives from his superiors. He hated that his job offered no path to greater pay. Most of all, he hated a system he thought favored criminals and punished cops. And he wasn’t inclined to keep these views to himself.

Yet even if Livoti nursed his bitterness to an extreme, the inner pressures he felt were typical–almost inescapable–features of police work.

The hostile attitude can begin with fear, and the need to conquer that fear by finding ways to control every situation, criminologists say.

Last spring, while making plans for an interview over dinner, Livoti picked his favorite Manhattan restaurant and then rattled off complex but precise directions from the FDR Drive to a parking garage that would have saved a grand total of $2 for the evening.

“I have always been a believer in strict law enforcement,” he said later, an ominous echo of the Giuliani administration’s “broken windows” policing theory. “I believe in taking care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.”

To Livoti, these malevolent “little things” were often the people on his beat he couldn’t control–people who didn’t acquiesce to his will.

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Criminologists have observed this kind of behavior in patrol officers for years. John Van Maanen, for one, recognized that cops, as part of their controlling impulse, tend to split the citizenry into three groups: “know-nothings,” “suspicious persons” and “assholes.”

Know-nothings, he explains, are the large group of harmless citizens who couldn’t possibly comprehend the world a cop lives in. Suspicious persons, on the other hand, are described as the standard run of criminals or suspects.

From a brutality standpoint, it’s the third group–the so-called assholes–who are most likely to be the subject of a well-publicized beating.

In a cop’s mind, an asshole is anyone who insults or defies an officer with a smart comment or someone who, for example, takes him on a hazardous high-speed chase. Sometimes they fit the same demographic as the bad guys–often they don’t. They may be criminal, but it is their perceived insolence and questioning of authority that sets cops off. Louima, Baez and Rodney King were all, in Van Maanen’s typology, model “assholes.”

Ethics aside, dealing harshly with assholes has a practical value in the world of the average patrolman. Even an easygoing officer, says James Fyfe, a Temple University criminologist and former NYPD lieutenant, can feel an obligation to “re-educate” people on the street. “I was taught that when I was a young cop,” he says. “If you go out on the street and someone gives you a hard time, it’s your job to make sure he doesn’t do that to the next cop. If you don’t straighten him out on the spot, you’re doing a disservice to your colleagues…. You have to have a reputation as a guy who’s not to be fucked with.”

But, he adds, there’s a line no cop should cross: “You have to build that reputation without brutalizing anybody.”

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For cops to maintain this difficult equilibrium day after day, it helps to have guidance.

On an afternoon in September, two dozen officers from Volpe’s 70th Precinct gathered for a Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect session in a Brooklyn classroom. The workshop was intended to introduce the cops to neighborhood residents who would air their concerns and complaints.

The cops were getting time-and-a-half pay to absorb the wisdom of community people, but the workshop organizers apparently didn’t do their job gathering guests. Of the handful of civilians on hand, more than half were residents of the cerebral palsy treatment facility across the street from the station house who had come simply to scold the cops for hogging parking spaces on the block.

“It’s not working out. I think it’s a waste of time and money,” said Joseph Crocitto, an ex-cop who participated in the session.

The CPR community workshops represent a rare addition to cops’ routine annual training, which has long consisted of two days for firearms practice and one for reviewing new directives regarding tactics. Under James O’Keefe, the department’s director of training since 1994, two more days have been added to the curriculum, one for learning specialized skills such as criminal investigations and the other for situational role-playing, which can highlight a wide range of tactical principles.

The day-long CPR sessions are supposed to mark the most comprehensive training effort ever aimed at “re-educating” cops on community relations. By the end of the year, the city’s entire uniformed patrol force of 21,000 will have taken part in one of these two-hour community workshops.

But half-hearted outreach efforts have often left outnumbered citizens listening meekly while outspoken cops enumerate their grievances. “You don’t want to speak honestly because you’re outnumbered, and all of them have weapons on them,” says Robert Ashbourne, a community organizer with the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes who has attended three workshops in the Bronx.

The two hours I spent in another Brooklyn CPR session had no higher level of neighborhood involvement. As the sole community resident in the room with 20 cops, I was asked to invent complaints I didn’t have. The facilitator fed me one–“Why do cops never come when you call them?”–and it elicited groans. Afterward, in an auditorium debriefing, cops seized the floor to gripe, amid appreciative whoops and hollers, about work conditions and Mayor Giuliani’s failure to OK a lucrative new police contract.

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If there is any breath of the new in CPR, it’s provided by Police Academy trainer Sergeant Joel Francis. By the end of the year, the city’s entire patrol force will have heard him or one of a few cops under him deliver a two-and-a-half-hour lecture on the new attitudes and communication skills each officer is expected to master. No one else gets center stage for as long.

When Francis is lecturing, he feels he’s serving the two communities that feel like home to him, two worlds divided by bad feelings. A “Jam-erican” born and still living in the Bronx, he fell in love with being a cop.

Francis’ “Verbal Judo” lecture, which the press has been barred from viewing, teaches cops how to avoid physical confrontation through verbal finesse. “We’re trying to help some cops understand that their biggest asset is their ability to shmooze,” he says. “We can get aggressive if we have to, but we don’t have to start there.”

Verbal judo was first imported to the NYPD two years ago by its New Mexico-based creator, a former cop and college professor named George Thompson. But some experts don’t see its utility. “It’s training the cop to be a smartass. The whole point was, ‘I can outsmart you, fucker,'” says Temple’s Jim Fyfe.

For some cops, verbal judo simply doesn’t translate to the most violent part of their work. Two veteran cops who drove me to a CPR seminar at Brooklyn’s Kingsborough College acknowledged verbal judo has helped them avoid nasty confrontations on routine traffic infractions. But, they said, it was of little use in dealing with the “bad guys.”

Francis readily admits the training can break down in the battlefield. “You put a young [officer] in the middle of Washington Heights who doesn’t understand the language, the culture, the people–there is fear,” he says. “It’s totally natural.”

But Francis says he’s just as afraid of the environment in the precinct house as on the streets.

“How can that officer apply the skills he learned at the academy in the streets without being tainted by the hardcore cop who tells him, ‘That stuff you learned in the academy? Forget it. We’ll show you what goes on.’ How does he deal with that pressure?” Francis asks.

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In the mid-1970s, the NYPD stopped teaching cops how they were expected to conduct themselves in routine interactions with suspects and other civilians.

Even if the academy has neglected to address such street-level realities, other police departments are undertaking a much more ambitious effort to acclimate their cadets to the real world. The best-known of those efforts was the early-’90s overhaul of the New Haven Police Academy, which shed its military-style regimen for a more collegiate atmosphere. Gone were the barking instructors, replaced by professors and community leaders who engaged cadets in dialogues. Most importantly, would-be cops were taken out for extended neighborhood field trips, sojourns that allowed them to get a sense of these places before they bore the responsibility of patrolling them.

Recently, the Justice Department gave New Haven a $1 million grant to establish an institute to help export their system to other departments around the state. Massachusetts is also implementing a statewide training program emphasizing similar principles.

But back in New York, station house sages currently fill in the blanks left by the academy. “[Former Police Commissioner] Ben Ward used to say all of the knowledge in the world is in the back room of the station house when you first get there. Just ask anything, they’ll give you the answer,” Julian says. “But it takes about a week to realize they don’t know anything. Those guys are totally ignorant.”

Two years ago, at Julian’s prodding, the department began putting recruits on the street for a month before their final weeks in the academy. The idea was that the recruits would experience first-hand the negative aspects of the job and then retreat to the academy to talk it over. The ensuing debriefings would serve to inoculate the baby cops against the bitterness and resentment that the prevailing cop culture uses for cover.

“The department blew it,” admits Julian. “They put them out in the street, but they just taught them how to write summons, respond to jobs and all that. And that’s because it’s easier. Nobody wants to deal with the culture thing, because it’s so scary.”

Julian says the NYPD needs to attack the issue of corrosive cop culture more directly. He’d like to see every precinct identify its five most disruptive cops and break their collective power by transferring each of them to a different station house. Second, he wants to ask cops to identify who among their peers is most prone to excessive violence, then partner the at-risk personalities with calmer officers.

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Yet, whatever innovations are attempted, Justin Volpe’s infamous “It’s Giuliani time” invocation has real resonance for those who link the violence with the NYPD’s newest policing strategies.

Even Francis Livoti has argued that the succeed-at-all-costs attitude puts too much pressure on street cops. “It’s like playing football and playing a two-minute offense for the whole game,” he told this reporter. “They’re not sitting there coming up with creative strategies. They’re just saying, ‘Go out and get it done. I don’t want to hear No.’ They’re taking a General Patton-type approach…. It’s just sheer intimidation.”

Julian sees a direct link between brutality and the pressure of policing in a “zero tolerance” city, where every minor offense can lead to an arrest.

“There are questions about what happened here in the city that will probably never be resolved,” he says. “Did you have to be so hard on your commanders to get them to toe the line and to change the way they do business? I would say no, you didn’t have to be. Did you have to search and frisk so many kids in the street?…. Could you have had more of an education campaign along with an enforcement campaign in those communities? Did so many people have to get arrested for misdemeanor offenses?

“I’m not sure that they did.”

Jason Stipp and Glenn Thrush contributed to this story.