Reporter Mike McAlary wasn’t sure he wanted the story, and who could have blamed him? He had just come home from a chemotherapy session to combat his colon cancer —but someone (obviously a cop, judging by the insider language he used) had left an anonymous tip on McAlary’s answering machine about a horrendous crime committed by fellow officers.1
McAlary had been hoping to cut back on his newspaper duties to work on a novel, but his reaction to the tip was swift (“If you’re a reporter, you write the story. I didn’t think about being sick,” he would explain later2). So he went to Coney Island Hospital to talk to the alleged victim: Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who had been horribly injured during a brutal sexual assault. Louima said the attack had been carried out after his arrest by police officers at Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct house; Louima’s family claimed they had reached out to media across the city, but they’d been ignored by all but New York 1 television.3
McAlary was skeptical, and so were his editors at New York Daily News —until the newspaper’s police bureau chief confirmed that Internal Affairs was looking into the incident.4 The series of columns by McAlary and Daily News headlines that followed shocked not just the city, but the entire nation, as it cast a harsh light on police brutality.
Two weeks after the arrest and assault of Louima, On the Media tried to tackle the topic of the media’s role in reporting on police misconduct, as well as how gritty television and motion picture portrayals of cops influenced both police officers and the public’s perception of them. In addition, host Alex S. Jones wanted to explore whether reporters were “too cozy with the cops”, or “mugging the police”. Joining Jones for this sometimes contentious discussion were Jim Dwyer, a colleague of McAlary’s at New York Daily News; Leo Wolinsky, an editor at The Los Angeles Times, the paper that had investigated the Rodney King police brutality case; Jannette Walls, Dean of the Howard University School of Communications; and David Durk, a former NYPD officer who, along with Frank Serpico, had exposed corruption in the department during the 1971 Knapp Commission hearings.
At the time, crime statistics in the city and across the country were dropping, and much of the credit was given to tough-on-crime leaders like New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor known for bringing down the Mafia and corrupt corporate financiers. But Dwyer believed that the mayor’s more aggressive policing policies also came with a decrease of transparency, particularly when it came to the NYPD, speculating that “if there were misdemeanors statutes for violating the public access and the freedom of information laws, Giuliani would be in jail. He routinely breaks those laws: he’s been found by courts to do that. [And] one of the areas [where] he’s most suppressed information about is police brutality.” Dwyer added that the criminalization of many nuisance crimes was leading the public, particularly African American youth, to have more interactions with the police —and the results were not pleasant.
The NYPD Blue effect
What role did popular TV shows like NYPD Blue or films like Spike Lee’s adaptation of the Richard Price novel Clockers have on the situation? Dates and Dwyer agreed that both police officers and the public were influenced by the characters portrayed in popular culture; Dates specifically believed that the self-image of African American youth were informed by it, saying that “for them that is a reality, so that violence becomes more of a way of life than what they have experienced in their own lives.” As far as their views of the police, she claimed that “it makes them very cynical about police. [They view the police as] just as bad as the criminals; the only difference is [that] they have a badge.”
Meanwhile, Wolinsky observed how the pendulum had swung in the ways police officers were portrayed, from the idealized partners of TV’s ADAM-12 in the sixties and seventies to the often ethically-challenged rogues of NYPD Blue in the nineties. He believed neither portrayal was “really real.”
For his part, Durk saw that the rogue image was embraced too often by officers, sharing that “it’s a common joke among police circles across the country: ‘You have a right to remain silent as long as you can stand the pain.’”
Wolinsky and Dwyer agreed that big city newsrooms were flooded with more alleged incidents of police misconduct than could be investigated by the media, so what Dwyer termed reports of “garden variety brutality” were “often ignored or tolerated”. So how did the Louima case end up in the headlines? Of course, the brutal sexual perversion of what was alleged arose the public’s prurient interest in itself, but Dwyer’s response was just as troubling: “I think if Louima had been killed . . . the story would probably have not have gotten this amount of coverage, because there would have been a cover account . . . by the officers implicated in this case . . . Had Louima not been alive to give testimony to the contrary, I think this story would not have been as dramatic as it was.”
Reporting on the symptom, but not the condition
Durk lamented that the focus on police brutality stemming from the Louima case was an anomaly, because “the press typically covers an event as opposed to a condition.” Despite that, he pointed out how the officer who contacted McAlary went to the media rather than Internal Affairs, because he was one of “thousands and thousands of honest cops who felt they had nowhere to go” to report misconduct.
McAlary’s reporting would eventually lead to Officer Justin Volpe receiving a sentence of 30 years without parole for his role in the assault. Another officer, Charles Schwartz, would see his conviction for the assault overturned, but would serve five years for perjury.5
In April 1998, McAlary would be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his columns about the Louima case.6 In December of that year, the colon cancer would take his life.7
Louima reached an $8.7 million settlement from the city and the police union and settled in Florida with his wife and children to run a real estate business.8
1 Lisheron, Mark. “It’s the Story That’s Most Important”, American Journalism Review, 1998, June.
2 Lisheron, op. cit.
3 Levitt, Leonard. NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country’s Greatest Police Force. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2009, 160-161.
4 Levitt, op. cit., 160-161.
5 Fertig, Beth and Jim O’Grady. “Twenty Years Later: The Police Assault on Abner Louima and What it Means”. WNYC.org, 2017, August 9. Accessed March 26, 2019.
6 The Pulitzer Prizes, “1998 Pulitzer Prizes: Journalism”, pulitzer.org. Accessed March 26, 2019.
7 Firestone, David. “Mike McAlary, 41, Columnist With Swagger to Match City’s”, The New York Times, 1998, December 26, C6.
8 Fertig and O’Grady, op. cit.