o'neill

A MOMENT OF TRUTH: He would later be accused by Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch of having ‘abandoned ship and left our police officers on the street alone, without backing,’ but Police Commissioner James O’Neill carefully sifted through the facts that led him to his decision to fire Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo and told reporters, ‘As Commissioner, I have to think about the city, I have to think about the rules and regs of the NYPD and make sure people follow them.’

One veteran police supervisor, speaking a few hours after Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced on live television that he was firing Daniel Pantaleo, said the suspense regarding his decision ended that morning when the notification to department commands did not include a mobilization of the troops that would have been invoked if the decision had gone the other way.

“If he was gonna keep his job,” he said of Officer Pantaleo, “they would’ve needed to notify thousands of cops to provide security at Headquarters and be prepared for disturbances all over the city.”

Despite Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch’s angry words—”Today, The Job is dead,” he said at the union’s offices an hour after Mr. O’Neill concluded his remarkable 30-minute press conference—there shouldn’t have been any surprise that Mr. Pantaleo was off the force. Notwithstanding Mr. Lynch’s hyperbole, the word “dead” applied only to Mr. Garner, and since Mr. O’Neill’s decision grew out of the conclusion by Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado that Officer Pantaleo used a department-banned chokehold when he didn’t need to during his struggle with the deceased, he had to go.

Would Have Made Chokehold Ban Meaningless

If he had remained on the force, the Commissioner might as well have ripped out of the NYPD Patrol Guide the page delineating the ban for the benefit of the TV cameras. Because that would have been an admission that it was an empty prohibition. It would have been an awful signal to send to the rest of the city, and, whether Mr. Lynch thought so or not, an arguably worse one to send to his rank and file.

There’s an old maxim that you can’t hope to maintain order if the law isn’t being applied as written. And after too many cases in which Mr. O’Neill’s two immediate predecessors responded to Civilian Complaint Review Board substantiations of chokehold charges against cops with nothing more severe than the loss of a few vacation days, the Pantaleo situation was the time to put up or shut up when it came to accountability for the NYPD on this issue.

The only real ambiguity in this case involved whether Officer Pantaleo would be allowed to retire with a pension, rather than being fired and walking away with no more than a refund of his contributions to the system. And the way that issue played out may be the real reason for Mr. Lynch’s fury and his over-the-top verbal assault on Commissioner O’Neill.

Stuart London, the union attorney who represented Mr. Pantaleo, said in a phone interview the following afternoon that he believed he had reached a deal with Chief of Department Terence Monahan under which his client would have been allowed to take a “vested retirement” that would have entitled him to a pension based on his 13 years with the NYPD, although he wouldn’t have been eligible to collect it until the 20th anniversary of his hired was reached. As part of the deal, he said, Mr. Pantaleo would have left service with a modified ID card—something that would have made him ineligible for a “good-guy letter” from the department entitling him to a gun permit.

But three days before Mr. O’Neill’s announcement, Mr. London received a text informing him, “There will be no paperwork prepared” over the weekend. An NYPD spokesman told the New York Post that while Chief Monahan had discussed this among the “possible options,” he had been overruled by the Police Commissioner.

Mr. London told me, however, “O’Neill was never present at the meetings, but it was my understanding that O’Neill was very much aware of what was being discussed and was in agreement with it.”

He declined to speculate on what happened to kill the deal he believed he had. But an obvious inference to be drawn was that Mayor de Blasio was the one to have exercised the veto, even though it’s a decision that rests with the Commissioner.

Freudian Slip by Mayor?

And the Mayor, who is nobody’s idea of a good liar, didn’t exactly provide Mr. O’Neill with cover on that issue when Errol Louis on NY1’s “Inside City Hall” the evening of the firing asked, “When did you learn about his decision?”

Mr. de Blasio replied, “Well, I want to respect the private conversations I had with the Commissioner, of course, but it was shortly before he made his final decision.”

Immediately realizing his indiscretion, he amended the statement to, “at the time he made his final decision, he told me.”

Would Mr. Lynch have been offering apocalyptic visions of an NYPD that was “rudderless and frozen” during his press conference if Mr. Pantaleo had been allowed to leave the department with his pension? Probably not; despite his heated rhetoric on behalf of his troops, he is enough of a realist to know that it was implausible that the officer could continue on the force, even on desk duty, once the trial finding went against him.

Mr. Lynch’s charge that the department’s leadership was “absolutely afraid of the criminal advocates” and that they would not have been mollified by merely removing Mr. Pantaleo from the NYPD payroll most likely reflected the belief that such a compromise would have led to a series of angry protests and possible clashes with police, who on several occasions this summer have found themselves under attack in parts of the city for trying to take lawful action.

The Mayor had been able to communicate his feeling about how the case should be decided by invoking the phrase “justice for the Garner family” on several occasions, most notably during the July 31 Democratic presidential debate. You didn’t need a detective’s skills to deduce that he wanted Mr. Pantaleo fired. The question was whether that by itself would have satisfied Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and the advocates supporting her, or whether they also attached a symbolic importance to his being stripped of his pension.

Given the anger that family members previously expressed that Officer Pantaleo not only collected full salary for more than five years prior to his Aug. 2 suspension after Deputy Commissioner Maldonado’s findings but worked enough overtime to significantly increase his earnings, they likely would have protested any deal that would have allowed him to start receiving pension checks in 2026.

Passing Buck on Delay

The fact that it took more than five years for Mr. Pantaleo to lose his job despite the video that showed him deploying the chokehold once he discovered that Mr. Garner was too wide to be taken down with a seat-belt hold was something Mr. de Blasio was still trying to explain, without being terribly convincing, after Mr. O’Neill announced his decision. Even if you accepted his professions of disbelief that the Justice Department under President Barack Obama had not been able to decide whether to charge the cop with civil-rights violations during the two-plus years that it put the city on hold after a Staten Island grand jury failed to bring an indictment against him, the city’s having waited more than 18 months into the Trump Administration before beginning the proceedings that produced his ouster made no sense, considering President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions quickly indicated their support of cops in cases like Mr. Garner’s.

In the case with the closest parallel to this one, Frank Livoti’s using a banned chokehold on Anthony Baez in December 1994 that led to his death, soon after Mr. Livoti’s questionable acquittal by a Bronx judge in 1996, the NYPD launched a disciplinary case that led to his firing in February 1997, not waiting for a Federal civil-rights prosecution that produced a conviction and a 7 ½-year prison sentence. That swift firing occurred with Rudy Giuliani—Mr. de Blasio’s polar opposite on cases pitting cops against minority citizens—in his first term as Mayor.

There were two primary differences between the two cases. One was that Officer Livoti was known within the department as a bad actor with a penchant for using excessive force whose clout as a PBA delegate let him successfully resist a transfer sought by his Bronx commander, and later shoved a Lieutenant during a dispute. The other was that his fatal confrontation with Mr. Baez began when he grew enraged the second time a football being tossed around accidentally struck his patrol car. It hadn’t mattered to Mr. Livoti that at that point he was not doing anything related to police business and Mr. Baez and his brothers were in front of their family home having a reunion three days before Christmas.

In contrast, Officer Pantaleo was taking official police action, even if of the ticky-tack kind, in attempting to arrest Mr. Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Commissioner O’Neill early in his explanation of his decision to fire the cop pointed out that the site where he was practicing his trade had been the source of community complaints that included drug-dealing and drinking that made some citizens avoid the area.

He also noted that Officer Pantaleo during his first eight years as a cop had made 289 arrests, a number of them involving guns taken from suspects, and received 14 department citations. There had been four substantiated civilian complaints made against the officer, although that’s not necessarily a high number for an active cop.

Alarming Allegations

But one of those cases involved allegations of the kind of disturbing police conduct that should have set off alarm bells. In a March 2012 incident, Officer Pantaleo and Sgt. Ignazio Conca conducted a strip-search on a Staten Island street of two men who were passengers in a car that they stopped. A lawsuit filed by the men, Darren Collins and Tommy Rice, alleged that Mr. Pantaleo had “touched or searched their genital areas, or stood by while this was done,” and flicked their genitals as if trying to shake loose any drugs they were concealing there.

The CCRB did not substantiate those allegations, although it upheld a claim that Sergeant Conca abused his authority by ordering an unlawful stop. An attorney who brought a lawsuit over the incident told this newspaper in 2016 that a previous gun conviction of Mr. Rice had hurt his credibility with the CCRB. But the two men were able to gain a $30,000 settlement from the de Blasio administration early in 2014, enough to move beyond the boundaries of a nuisance payout, though not nearly as much as might have been expected if the plaintiffs didn’t have past troubles with the law.

It’s not known whether the NYPD thoroughly investigated the claim. If it were valid, whether Mr. Pantaleo was the genital-flicker or merely looked on as his Sergeant did the deed and never reported it wouldn’t make that much difference—it should have been enough to earn him a visit to the NYPD Psychological Services unit to determine why he thought such behavior was acceptable. His involvement, if verified, might also have indicated a belief that cops were entitled to abuse their authority when dealing with criminal suspects that could explain why he so quickly escalated a confrontation with a man suspected of selling loosies.

The fact that the NYPD has offered no details on whether it investigated the incident and what it determined—presumably because it would have violated a section of the state Civil Rights Law that it began invoking only in the wake of leaks regarding the CCRB complaints against Officer Pantaleo, 40 years after the law was enacted—raises questions about whether ranking officials failed to be diligent about dealing with an abusive officer before he did lasting damage.

And that is hardly the only unaddressed question regarding the cops involved in the confrontation with Mr. Garner.

Shocking Indifference

There were at least five of them, including Officer Pantaleo, who were in close-enough proximity to Mr. Garner to hear his repeated cries of “I can’t breathe” as one cop lay across his back, pressing his chest into the ground, and Mr. Pantaleo mushed his face into the pavement. Once he was handcuffed and unconscious, none of them seemed to think he was in the kind of distress that required immediate medical attention. The first Sergeant to arrive at the scene, Kizzy Adonis, can’t be heard on the videotape asking whether any of them knew CPR or expressing urgency when a Richmond University Medical Center ambulance crew belatedly arrived.

The body language of the cops at that point suggested this wasn’t one to get excited about; one of them had ordered the crowd that had gathered to move out of the way, but he offered no indication to the EMTs that Mr. Garner was in serious need of medical attention. Looking at the extended videotape of the incident, the lethargy of the cops once they had Mr. Garner under control was such that you could imagine that if asked by their superiors what they were doing, their response would have been to protest, “I didn’t do nothin’!”

Among those most disturbed by the video was Gene O’Donnell, an ex-cop who’s now a Professor of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College. For more than five years he has been a vociferous defender of Mr. Pantaleo, claiming he was being hung out to dry for a bad result arising out of questionable judgments by those higher up the NYPD chain of command. But he was unsparing in his assessment of the other cops at the scene, saying after the Staten island grand jury opted not to bring charges against Officer Pantaleo in December 2014, “The stuff about not giving him medical attention, that’s unforgivable. I think it’s probably a fair statement that some of the worst stuff [on the video] is not the takedown. There’s this moral question…after your adversary is down, you have to switch into life-saving mode.”

There’s no way to know whether speedier medical attention might have saved Mr. Garner, who was severely overweight and suffered from asthma, diabetes and a heart condition. But every cop at that scene should be asking themselves whether being conscientious might have made a difference, not only to the stricken man but to the colleague who was fired. If Mr. Garner had been revived, we probably would have never heard his name, or Mr. Pantaleo’s.

Lied About Dead Man

Aside from Sergeant Adonis, none of the other cops have faced internal charges, and all of them were given immunity from prosecution by then-Staten Island District Attorney Danny Donovan. Mr. Pantaleo’s partner that day, Justin Damico, admitted during the departmental trial that he falsified an arrest report by claiming that Mr. Garner had enough cigarettes in his position to warrant a felony charge. Lying about the culpability of a dead man to protect your partner is also something that should not sit easy on a cop’s conscience. The Police Department, now that the case against Mr. Pantaleo has been wrapped up, is going to have to think seriously about whether other officers should face internal charges.

During the early stages of Commissioner O’Neill’s laying out the facts at Police Headquarters, it was tough to discern which way he was going on the decision as he labored to analyze both sides in that fatal confrontation.

He said that if he’d been in Mr. Pantaleo’s shoes, he might have “made similar mistakes” and “would have wished I had used the arrival of backup officers to give the situation more time to make the arrest. And I would have wished that I had released my grip before it became a chokehold,” even as he acknowledged that every time he watched the video, he found himself imploring Mr. Garner not to resist arrest and telling Officer Pantaleo, “don’t do it.”

Then he gave the first strong hint of where he was going, saying, “But none of us can take back our decisions, most especially when they lead to the death of another human being.” A couple of minutes later, however, talking about the cases when people resist arrest, he remarked, “Those situations are unpredictable and dangerous to everyone involved. The street is never the right place to argue the appropriateness of an arrest.”

He noted the difficulty cops face in making split-second decisions that would later be examined “by those with much more time to think about them than the police officer had. And those decisions are scrutinized and second-guessed, both fairly and unfairly…But an officer’s choices and actions, even made under extreme pressure, matter.”

As a result of questionable decisions by the two principal players in the confrontation, Mr. O’Neill said, Mr. Garner lost his life—”and that is an irreversible tragedy. And a hardworking police officer with a family, a man who took this job to do good, to make a difference in his home community, has now lost his chosen career,” the first clear indication that he was firing Mr. Pantaleo.

‘A Consequence of Its Own’

“And that is a different kind of tragedy. In this case, the unintended consequence of Mr. Garner’s death must have a consequence of its own…It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”

Alluding to his 34 years as a police officer before becoming Commissioner in 2016, Mr. O’Neill continued, “If I was still a cop, I’d probably be mad at me…Some will be angry…we’ll have to work through this. It’s a resilient organization.”

It was a more-hopeful view of the department than Mr. Lynch presented not long afterwards, declaring that “the leadership has abandoned ship and left our police officers on the street alone, without backing.” But the PBA president was speaking to a narrow constituency, secure in the knowledge that no police-union leader ever lost the support of his troops for denouncing the Mayor and his Police Commissioner.

As if anticipating such criticism, Mr. O’Neill continued, “As Commissioner, I have to think about the city. I have to think about the rules and regs of the NYPD and make sure people follow them.”

He was among the senior members of the department who have served long enough to remember the Livoti case and all the judgment errors that made that tragedy unavoidable. For too long in the years since, Commissioners who were around then—including Bill Bratton, who was Commissioner at that time and returned under Mr. de Blasio to be running the department at the time of the Garner incident—had failed to take chokeholds where a cop wasn’t facing risks to his own life seriously enough.

Mr. Lynch may have felt betrayed that a deal he thought had been reached allowing Mr. Pantaleo to exit with a pension wasn’t honored. But on the main order of business: holding the cop accountable for violating the departmental ban and explaining himself in a way that offered both cops and city residents a full look at the issues he had to wrestle with, Mr. O’Neill gave all concerned a fuller understanding of his complex road to producing justice in this wrenching case.


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