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Justice Department investigating New York precinct


Broader probe possible

August 19, 1997
Web posted at: 4:51 p.m. EDT (2051 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Justice Department officials say lawyers from the Civil Rights Division are joining the investigation of allegations that New York City police officers sexually tortured a man in custody.

"We are gathering information to determine whether an investigation into patterns and practices of the police department is warranted," said a high-ranking Washington official. "Right now we're looking only at reports from that one precinct. There could be a broader investigation. We have the authority. But right now it's too early to tell."

The criminal probe focuses on the incident in which Haitian immigrant Abner Louima said he was sodomized with a stick by at least one officer while in police custody.

Four New York police officers have been arrested so far in connection with the assault.

One of the officers reportedly bragged about the attack, saying he had to "break a man" who took a swing at him. Officer Justin Volpe also told fellow officers, "I had to bring a man down tonight," the New York Post reported.

Louima was arrested after a scuffle with police outside a Brooklyn nightclub on August 9. Authorities say he was beaten by the four officers on the way to the station house, and then was sodomized in the bathroom there while in handcuffs. Louima said the officers attacking him also used racial slurs.

Louima remains hospitalized with a torn colon and other injuries, and plans to sue the city and police for $55 million.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter

The possibility of a full-scale Justice Department investigation was first raised by U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter in Brooklyn. Key Civil Rights officials in Washington have talked with Carter several times in the past two days.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division currently has two investigations in progress involving the Los Angeles and New Orleans police departments. Earlier, the Pittsburgh police department reached a settlement with the Justice Department in which it agreed to a series of changes designed to end civil rights violations.

Such probes are launched to determine if there are "patterns and practices" in which police officers repeatedly fail to act against violations of civil rights, or if police brutality is tolerated.

Volpe and Officer Charles Schwarz were arraigned Monday on state charges of assault and sexual abuse. Both pleaded innocent and were freed on $100,000 bail.

The two other police officers, Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder, were arrested Monday and charged with beating Louima before he arrived at the police precinct where the abuse allegedly took place.

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