If you don’t look closely at the details, there could be something glamorous about the sting that ousted a couple of New Haven police officers two weeks ago.
Lt. William White, leader of the New Haven Police Department’s narcotics unit and, at 63, two years shy of retirement, got busted for stealing around $30,000 and taking bribes. More exciting yet, this was no ordinary $30,000: The FBI planted the cash as bait for White. In one particularly damning moment, White disguised himself in a hooded sweatshirt and took $27,500 cash in what he thought was drug money. He had been told that if the dealers found the money gone, they might retaliate by killing the informant. A good, hardworking cop tempted enough by the promise of easy rewards to jeopardize his career and someone else’s life? Martin Scorsese must already be drafting his next script.
In a city not so very far away, another, entirely unglamorous story of the police’s abuse of power is still unfolding. Early on Nov. 25, 23-year-old Sean Bell, an African-American, left a notorious Queens nightclub with friends, one of whom was suspected of carrying a gun. According to the police account, a plainclothes officer approached their parked car, showed identification and asked Bell to raise his hands over his head. The car accelerated backward, hitting another officer and bumping the unmarked police van. The officers began to shoot. Detective Gescard Isnora fired 11 shots, and Detective Michael Oliver fired 31 shots, pausing at some point to reload. Bell, who was to marry the mother of his child later that day, was killed.
If you don’t look closely at the details, the meaning of this incident couldn’t be clearer. After a period of fairly decent relations between the NYPD and New York’s minority population, it looks like two racist cops blew it. Isnora and Oliver were typically abusive cops whose racially fueled power trip cost an innocent man his life.
No criminal cases seem easier for us, the ordinary citizens, to judge than those of police brutality. Sure, grand tales of corporate greed are fun to make a fuss over, but at the end of the day, those embezzling CEOs seem like fairy tale villains, remote and amusing in their shortsighted schemes. But when the police, our supposed protectors, are caught abusing us, the stories are compelling and disturbing. Shaken by what these officers have done, we are quick to rally against them, especially in cases as tragic as the Bell killing.
Lt. White was greedy and stole quite a bit of money, but caused no harm to anyone but himself. Detectives Isnora and Oliver used, in the words of New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, “excessive force” against a defenseless victim, reviving antagonism between New York’s minority citizens and its police force. That is, again, if you don’t look closely at the details. But it is essential to examine further the careers of these three officers if we seek to understand and critique the condition of these complicated police forces.
A disturbing trend surfaces from the newspaper coverage of White’s life on the force. The New York Times reports that at the beginning of his career, it was discovered that White had planted white powder on a suspect in a drug arrest. He was fired, but rehired under police union laws. A few years later, young black children who played on a local soccer team coached by White reported that he pointed a shotgun at them and shouted racial epithets when they passed his house. In 1990, White was sued for brutally beating a 13-year-old suspect.
Of Isnora and Oliver, Robert Leuci, a former NYPD narcotics detective, wrote in The New York Times: “One of these officers now indicted had never used his gun before, despite having made over 600 arrests.” And, amidst furious discussions of the role that racism played in Bell’s killing, it is certainly worth noting that both Isnora and Oliver are black.
Are the crimes of Isnora and Oliver worse than those of White? Who are the good cops, and who are the bad? Although Isnora and Oliver’s actions had a far bloodier impact that White’s, White’s long-term pattern of abuse, with its grim, racist overtones, suggests a situation that may have been just as devastating as anything in the Bell case. White’s record points to a calculated desire to degrade and exploit in a way that the case of Isnora and Oliver simply does not. With only this most recent embezzlement and theft incident to go on, it would be easy to ask how an officer could allow himself to fall to corruption. But that’s only a decoy. Instead, we need to know how the New Haven Police Department could allow one of its most prominent employees to abuse the citizens of this city so consistently, and for so many years. We need to know that the police department will address ongoing abuse, rather than ignoring it until the FBI rides into town.
Alexandra Schwartz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.