Putting the “blue wall of silence” on trial

July 19, 2016

Eugene Dardenne reports on the case of a New Yorker who wants the police held accountable for the officer who witnesses say ran her down in a Brooklyn intersection.

SIX MONTHS ago, Cindy Klumb was on her way home from work at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute when she tripped on a lip of asphalt while crossing the neglected intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Ryerson Street.

As she gathered herself from her fall, Klumb remembers hearing someone shout a warning--before a vehicle knocked her back to the pavement, breaking two of her ribs and causing trauma to her head, neck and shoulder.

And if you were to believe the police report, that's as much as is known. According to that, the driver sped off, and the 63-year-old Klumb was just the latest victim of one of New York City most common forms of street violence: the hit and run.

But as reported by Gothamist in March, the story isn't so cut and dry.

Multiple witnesses later recognized the driver milling near the crowd that had gathered to help Klumb. When questioned by investigating officer Orlando Vargas, rather than own up to his terrible mistake, the driver flashed his police badge.

That's according to Vargas' own witness, Pratt student John Cisneros. Furthermore, according to Klumb's lawyer, another cop working the case--Detective Charles Sperco--acknowledged over the phone that the driver responsible was indeed a member of the NYPD Auxiliary Police.

Cindy Klumb after she was injured in a hit and run
Cindy Klumb after she was injured in a hit and run

THERE ARE many factors that led to Klumb's injury, starting with New York City's poor street maintenance. The accident occurred at a section of Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn where four blocks stretch without a single crosswalk, and there are countless potholes and a warped patchwork of asphalt "repairs."

Then there's the growing list of pedestrians hit--and often killed--in recent years by reckless NYPD drivers.

In Staten Island, for example, William "Bruce" Hemphill--a drillboat operating engineer working to deepen New York's harbor--was walking to work in Staten Island when he was killed by Joseph McClean, a drunk off-duty cop driving so fast that Hemphill's body flew 30 yards through the air after being struck.

In Queens, Ryo Oyamada, a Japanese student learning English in New York was walking home when he was struck and killed by a speeding police cruiser. The driver, Officer Darren Ilardi, was acquitted of any wrongdoing despite allegations that the NYPD tampered with evidence in his case.

And in Brooklyn, there's the story of Felix Coss, a beloved 61-year-old Spanish teacher at Williamsburg's Beginning with Children Charter School. Coss was walking in a crosswalk with the signal when Officer Paula Medrano plowed into him, despite Coss clearly having the right of way.

Although witnesses saw Medrano using her cell phone as she made a left into the intersection, the city had the gall to blame Coss for his own death, citing his "assumption of risk" by crossing the street in the first place.

Like so many other victims of police violence, Klumb has been victimized a second time by the "blue wall of silence" or "blue shield"--the unwritten code among police officers never to testify against one of their own. When Officer Vargas visited her at the hospital a few hours after she was hit, Klumb began to suspect as much, as she remembered for a Gothamist reporter:

I'm still bleeding, I've still got blood dripping off of my mouth and nose...He has no way of knowing if I'm going to make it. I said, "You got [the driver], right?" He said, "Nobody got a good look at him. Nobody really got a good look at the car."

Klumb told the Gothamist that at that point, she stopped saying much to Vargas because "something didn't feel right." Suspicious of a cover-up, she and her attorney are currently cooperating with an Internal Affairs investigation to supersede Officer Vargas and Detective Sperco's responsibility for the case.

If Vargas and Sperco are proven to have suppressed information about the role of the Auxiliary Police Officer responsible, then Klumb may be able to put a chink in the shield that allows police to break the very laws they purport to enforce.

IN THE wake of the latest string of police murders to be caught on video, police adherence to the "blue shield" even in the face of overwhelming evidence has become an additional source of outrage, something that was sharply expressed by Hot 97 radio host Peter Rosenberg when a cop who called in to his show refused to condemn the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge:

This is the problem I have with cops. I have to say this. This is the problem I have with police officers, no disrespect to you; You all don't ever want to point at someone else and say you can't do your job well...Police officers never want to say when you all do a bad job so that's the reason the public thinks all of you are bad. Because you won't ever call someone out and say they murdered someone in cold blood. It happened again, and until you guys start taking responsibility for your own, people in the street are going to be upset instead.

From the racist murders that take hundreds of lives each year to the casual disregard for a citizen's rights we see in Klumb's case, the police use the "blue wall of silence" to get away with crimes every day.

One recent example of a cop actually getting convicted is an exception that proves the rule: Earlier this year, Peter Liang became the first NYPD officer in over a decade to be convicted of a shooting death--the 2014 killing of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old father of two, in the Pink Houses housing project in Brooklyn.

Some Asian-American leaders protested Liang's indictment and argued that the traditional defenders of killer cops--the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), had sold out a rookie Chinese-American cop to be a scapegoat for police violence.

But beyond whatever anti-Asian racism undoubtedly exists in the NYPD and PBA, the bigger reason why Liang didn't receive the same vigorous defense as the cops who murdered Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham or countless others is that Liang violated the "blue shield."

Under historic pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement to hold cops like him accountable, Liang cracked. He implicated his NYPD training and commanding officers in his crime.

In the face of damning evidence that he didn't administer first aid to Gurley, Liang testified that the NYPD's CPR certification was a joke--the training was administered simultaneously to 300 students, and the test answers were given out in advance. As a result of this testimony, the instructing officer Melissa Brown was demoted to an administrative position at the police force.

The conviction of Peter Liang surely was heard as a clear message to the rest of the NYPD: The blue shield will protect you only if you uphold the blue shield. And importantly, as Peter Rosenberg exclaimed, this unwritten code is precisely what implicates all police in the worst behavior of individual cops.

From their point of view, it is the moral glue that unites and enshrines the police in their above-the-law status. And ultimately this solidarity among police--and the entire legal system's complicity in it--serves to protect the class of politicians and business elites who benefit in such a violently unequal society in the first place.

That's one of the reasons why the movement against police violence and impunity is so important--and why we have to stand alongside people like Cindy Klumb and many others showing the courage to stand up to the blue shield.

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