Toward the end of his press conference announcing the firing of Daniel Pantaleo, Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who had previously admitted, “If I was a cop, I’d probably be mad at me,” was asked whether he was concerned about hints from the Police Benevolent Association of a rulebook slowdown that could affect emergency responses.
He replied that he believed if officers were flagged down by citizens in serious need of assistance, “They’re not gonna think about this decision. They’re gonna think about why they took this job, and they’re gonna help them.”
A bit more than an hour later, PBA President Pat Lynch spoke of the damage done by the decision, which also denied Mr. Pantaleo a pension for his 13 years of service, and said, “We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their jobs. We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.”
There’s quite a gap between Mr. O’Neill’s expression of confidence in his officers’ mettle and Mr. Lynch’s end-of-policing-as-we-know-it diatribe, which not incidentally included the pledge of a vote of no confidence in both the Police Commissioner and Mayor de Blasio.
A more-objective assessment of the temperature in the field was offered a couple of days later by a Police Officer who, for obvious reasons, spoke conditioned on anonymity.
“I think the mood now is one of anxiety,” he told us. “Morale has taken a nosedive. Losing the job was bad; losing the pension was worse.”
Mr. Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, had claimed to have reached an agreement with Chief of Department Terence Monahan to let Mr. Pantaleo retire with a pension rather than be fired that he believed had the approval of Mr. O’Neill. The fact that it didn’t hold up created speculation that the Mayor had interceded in a matter that was supposed to be the Commissioner’s to decide, and the cop we spoke to said that was a shared perception among him and his colleagues.
The pension has an intangible importance to officers, he said: when they are enduring difficulty on the job, either dealing with uncooperative members of the public or interference from above, it represents a piece of the rock that propels them forward and keeps them working. “Seeing that disappear certainly jolted a lot of cops,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone thinks O’Neill would have made this decision himself,” he continued, something he attributed to another highly charged case that occurred a month after the Commissioner succeeded Bill Bratton. At that point, this officer said, Mr. O’Neill was regarded as “a cop’s cop,” but he added, “That perception fell apart with his statement on Sergeant Barry.”
He was referring to the October 2016 incident in which Sgt. Hugh Barry talked Deborah Danner, a Bronx woman with a history of schizophrenia, into putting down a scissors she had been waving threateningly, only to have her pick up a hammer and swing it at him, forcing him to fatally shoot her. It had been one of those split-second, life-and-death decisions that cops are sometimes forced to make. A tragedy, to be sure, but one that was virtually unavoidable unless the Sergeant wanted to risk being struck by a deadly weapon.
The following morning, Commissioner O’Neill characterized what had occurred by saying, “We failed.” The officer said that hit a nerve among patrol cops, although our guess is that the greater damage was done that afternoon when the Mayor bitterly assailed Sergeant Barry for not waiting until Emergency Services Unit cops trained in dealing with emotionally disturbed persons arrived. Given that the Sergeant counted on his own powers of persuasion over a 10-minute conversation with Ms. Danner, rather than attempting a cowboy move to disarm her, the Mayor’s recriminations struck a particularly sour note, and apparently Mr. O’Neill still hasn’t recovered the full confidence of the troops.
“The way we’re looking at it,” the Police Officer told us, “there’s a lot of talk that Pantaleo was sacrificed for a certain amount of peace in the city.” He said of Mr. O’Neill, “If he looked at the tape, saw a chokehold and there’s a department ban on chokeholds, then that’s what he had to do,” but added that if the loss of the pension was part of buying peace, the Commissioner went too far.
Until now, he said, it was not uncommon that cops would take “short-cuts” in their jobs by making an arrest, then getting a supervisor to verify it but sometimes giving an explanation of the circumstances that justified the supervisor not actually having to come to the site for final sign-off.
“Now, we’re actually going to have the supervisor on the scene,” he said.
Whether slowing down the process in that fashion affects police efficiency remains to be seen. We’d guess that Commissioner O’Neill anticipated that possibility and concluded it was the best of several tough options confronting him.
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