New York was rocked this week by the indictment of five police officers on charges involving brutality and torture in a Queens precinct. Mayor Koch quickly proclaimed that he was "outraged and disgusted" by the charges, which he characterized as "horrendous." Those familiar with the case -- including many policemen -- agree.
On April 17, an 18-year-old high school student was arrested on the street and brought to the stationhouse. He had no criminal record, but was accused of accepting $10 from an undercover agent in a marijuana sale. When he denied the charge, he says, he was handcuffed and beaten, one eye was blackened and his head was repeatedly slammed into the wall. Then -- and here is the worst -- he says he was burned again and again by an electric device he describes as "a small box with a pair of 6-inch electric prongs." The device, identified by police authorities as a "stun gun" is said to have caused more than 50 black burn marks on the teen- ager's back and chest. When interrogators threatened to apply the prongs to his testicles, the boy says, he confessed, though he still maintains his innocence.
Do you believe this happened in the United States, in New York City, in 1985? Since the charges surfaced, four additional young men have come forward claiming they, too, were tortured in the same stationhouse. New York authorities have acted quickly. The district attorney of Queens County sought indictments immediately. All the officers in the precinct -- a captain, three lieutenants and 15 sergeants -- have been transferred, and four high-ranking department officers -- including the head of the 17,000-member uniformed force -- have been asked to retire. Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward called together more than 300 of the department's leaders and warned them that they would be held personally responsible for brutality and corruption in their commands. Mayor Koch has asked Attorney General Edwin Meese to look into possible civil rights violations in this case.
Questions remain: Was there a widespread practice of electric-shock torture in the precinct concerned and elsewhere? Did commanders know about it? Did other officers listen to 20 minutes of screaming without protesting or intervening? Did the silence of their colleagues signal approval to the interrogators? Was the youth questioned without being apprised of his right to a lawyer in the first place?
Freedom from police misconduct is among the most precious constitutional protections we enjoy. It is eroded when any person's suffering and torture are tolerated. This is a very important case.