While Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado’s recommendation that Officer Daniel Pantaleo be fired for using a department-banned chokehold would “freeze” the NYPD, it may have the opposite effect by requiring Police Commissioner James O’Neill to honor a ban that his two immediate predecessors often disregarded.
Over the past decade, first Ray Kelly and then Bill Bratton—on whose watch the fatal confrontation with Eric Garner occurred—rarely punished officers found to have engaged in chokeholds, and at most took away a few vacation days. The implicit message to officers was that those running the department didn’t take the offense seriously.
Ms. Maldonado’s finding changes that. Her conclusion that Officer Pantaleo “recklessly” deployed a chokehold after Mr. Garner resisted arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street five years ago refutes his claim that he had used a “seat-belt hold” rather than a chokehold to subdue the petty criminal. While Mr. Pantaleo initially used that maneuver, a video shot by Ramsey Orta showed that when Mr. Garner’s girth made it difficult to get him under control that way, he switched to a chokehold. Contrary to the officer’s claim that he moved his arm around Mr. Garner’s neck only from concern that they might crash into a store’s window, that danger did not arise until Mr. Pantaleo yanked back on Mr. Garner’s neck and the bigger man’s bulk sent them careening in that direction.
There have been complaints of growing political pressure for Officer Pantaleo’s firing, to the point where it became a subject of the second Democratic debate July 31, two days before Ms. Maldonado’s decision became public. But to argue that he is being victimized by politics is to ignore the reality that he was arguably the recipient of a politically-tinged break when a Staten island grand jury did not indict him in December 2014.
The District Attorney at the time, Dan Donovan, was aware that U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm was likely to have to step down following a criminal conviction for tax evasion, and before the month was over, Mr. Grimm resigned and Mr. Donovan immediately became the front-runner to succeed him, going on to win a special election the following spring. It’s hard to imagine that a prosecutor in any other borough would have had to worry that an indictment of Officer Pantaleo would have hurt him politically, and as one former NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials said at the time, the video alone should have made indictment a certainty, even as he noted that it wouldn’t necessarily had led to a criminal conviction.
In an editorial that was published just before Ms. Maldonado’s decision was disclosed, the New York Post made the case that Officer Pantaleo shouldn’t be fired when there were other contributing factors to Mr. Garner’s death, and if he was, “how are other cops to be expected to do their duty—confronting someone who resists arrest—knowing they may lose their jobs, and careers, if things go wrong?”
The editorial went on to state, “The slow response by police and medical officers to Garner’s ‘I can’t breathe’ was wrong…Garner’s resistance to being arrested, his medical problems and mistakes by the cops and EMTs all helped bring about the worst possible outcome. Making a scapegoat of one police officer isn’t the answer.”
Those last statements, however, inadvertently contradicted the argument that drumming Officer Pantaleo out of his job would have a chilling effect on other cops. One reason this case provoked so much outrage was the laggard response of the other officers at the scene after Mr. Garner was rendered unconscious. After using the chokehold to bring him to the ground, Officer Pantaleo began mushing Mr. Garner’s face into the pavement while another cop sat on his chest. The 11 cries of “I can’t breathe” should have made it clear to all the cops that his loss of consciousness was serious. Yet the video shows them basically lolling around as he lay there on the street. When an ambulance finally arrived, the body language of the cops betrayed a lack of urgency; they had not tried to render CPR, and they said nothing to the EMTs to make them believe it might be a life-and-death situation. (The EMT who attempted to attend to Mr. Garner at one point spoke to him as if he were faking unconsciousness.)
That was the time for raging against the danger of cops doing nothing. Mr. Bratton spoke afterwards about lack of training being an issue, but the perception of many New Yorkers was that a lack of common sense or caring that Mr. Garner was in severe distress informed the sluggish police response. We would hope that Mr. Lynch and top NYPD commanders have privately made clear to officers how inappropriate that reaction was to someone who at that point was their prisoner. Consider the consequences.
Under the circumstances, there seem only two possible windups for Mr. Pantaleo: a firing by Mr. O’Neill, or a resignation by the officer to protect his pension.
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