Sometime in the coming weeks, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado, who is presiding over the disciplinary trial of Daniel Pantaleo in connection with Eric Garner’s death, will issue her conclusions and a recommendation on action to Police Commissioner James O’Neill.
It could result in the officer’s acquittal, could cost him his job, or wind up with a distinctly minor penalty.
Whatever the disposition is, it’s not expected to be made public, however. That’s because the de Blasio administration three years ago decided that for the previous four decades, the city had violated Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law in publicizing the outcome of NYPD disciplinary trials.
As we have noted before, to believe this had occurred, you would have to accept the premise that NYPD unions, especially the Police Benevolent Association, had been victimized by the failure of their lawyers to spot wording in the law that made it illegal to disclose the dispositions in those cases. Since those union lawyers tend to be both clever and aggressive, it strains credulity to think that they would have allowed officers to suffer adverse publicity if secrecy was required by law.
The idea that the Garner case, which should have been aired in a trial in Staten Island but wound up in the NYPD Trial Room because then-District Attorney Dan Donovan couldn’t secure an indictment that one veteran prosecutor has called a “no-brainer” based solely on video of the incident, could end with a secret verdict and disposition is absurd, as was noted by several critics of Section 50-a in a front-page story by this newspaper’s Richard Khavkine.
That might be written off as a position staked out by longtime police critics, except that their concern about the impact of a secret disposition is shared by Commissioner O’Neill.
Three months ago, after a panel of experts he had tapped to examine the NYPD’s use of 50-a said that it was a major roadblock to building public trust and confidence in the department’s disciplinary process, particularly in the city’s black and Latino communities, he called for the law’s reform to allow the release of the names of officers, the charges against them and the disposition of their cases. “As with everything,” Mr. O’Neill remarked, “trust is key here and it hinges on accountability and transparency.”
That view would appear to be shared by Mayor de Blasio. After the administration unfurled its novel interpretation of Section 50-a three years ago, he said he’d like to change it to allow for public disclosure, but that such a move faced an insurmountable obstacle in the form of opposition from Republicans who controlled the legislative agenda in the State Senate.
In case Hizzoner has been too busy on the campaign trail to have gotten the news, Democrats gained a wide majority in the Senate at the start of this year based on last November’s elections. The chances of moving a bill amending Section 50-a through the Legislature would seem as good as they’ll ever be. Governor Cuomo’s own desire to increase public confidence in highly charged police cases was made clear after the Staten Island grand jury opted not to indict, with its deliberations remaining secret under state law, when he designated the State Attorney General to serve as a special prosecutor in cases in which an unarmed person died in a confrontation with police.
But according to one legislator we spoke to May 23, no bill to amend Section 50-a has been introduced, either at the city’s request or independent of the de Blasio administration, and “it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s priority.”
That doesn’t preclude the possibility that in the final month of the legislative session, the Mayor will press for a change, banking on the move coming late enough to blunt a campaign against it by the police unions. If he doesn’t, however, it will raise new questions about his credibility, as well as his Police Commissioner’s.
Section 50-a gives the cops involved some privacy that their unions claim has the benefit of protecting them from unfair questioning by defense lawyers for those they have arrested about violations the officers committed that have no bearing on the criminal cases. What is often overlooked in discussing cases like these is that nondisclosure helps the department to minimize what’s known about management screw-ups that played a role. And the Garner case is packed with questionable decisions made at the top of the NYPD, from then-Chief of Department Philip Banks’s order to have arrests made for selling loose cigarettes to the odd reluctance of Mr. O’Neill’s two immediate predecessors as Commissioner, Bill Bratton and Ray Kelly, to penalize officers who used chokeholds that have been prohibited by the NYPD for 26 years.
It’s possible, even probable, that the disposition of the Pantaleo case will leak out, as happened in another recent departmental trial, involving Officer Richard Haste in the fatal shooting of Ramarley Graham in 2012. But disclosure by subterfuge, which allows details to be kept minimal, won’t inspire confidence in the department’s willingness to hold officers accountable.
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