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SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR: The Daniel Pantaleo case was the second police-involved killing in which  James O’Neill (left) and Mayor de Blasio wound up at odds over the degree of culpability of the accused officers, and the Police Commissioner’s reputation among his own troops took a hit because he was perceived as not sufficiently standing up for them against a Mayor they’d concluded did not have their backs. 

In a less-controversial universe, Police Commissioner James O’Neill’s decision to fire Daniel Pantaleo wouldn’t still be reverberating and have played a role in his choosing to step down at the end of this month to take a top job with VISA.

Eric Garner showed poor judgment when he resisted arrest on July 17, 2014, given the multiple health problems that left him ill-equipped to get involved in strenuous physical activity. But Officer Pantaleo’s training should have left him less-prone to match Mr. Garner bad move for bad move by resorting to a chokehold after his attempt to use a Police Academy-taught seatbelt hold was thwarted by the sheer girth of his adversary.

The NYPD has banned chokeholds since 1993, although you wouldn’t know it by the lack of serious penalties imposed by both the Commissioner at the time of the Garner incident, Bill Bratton, and his predecessor, Ray Kelly. But when Mr. Pantaleo’s chokehold became a precipitating event in the chain reaction of force used against Mr. Garner that left him dead within an hour of the struggle, it should have been a clear-cut, if emotionally-difficult decision to fire the cop once a Staten Island grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department passed on bringing charges and sent the case back to the NYPD.

An Appropriate Penalty, However Unpopular in Field

If you use a banned chokehold and someone you were arresting for selling loose cigarettes winds up in the morgue, it should cost you your job. It might be unpopular among other NYPD officers, given that Officer Pantaleo was carrying out a lawful, if stupid, order that reportedly came from then-Chief of Department Philip Banks. But the disproportionate force he wound up using and the result of it should have marked this as a case where loss of job stood as an exception to a general rule, rather than having a chilling effect on the rest of the rank and file.

And it might well have, except that Officer Pantaleo’s union, the Police Benevolent Association, and his attorney, Stuart London, believed they had reached a deal under which he would have been allowed to resign his job and qualify for a pension that would not have taken effect until 2026, timed to what would have been his 20th anniversary in the NYPD. It had been negotiated, the two men said, which Chief of Department Terence Monahan acting at the behest of Commissioner O’Neill. After the deal was mysteriously taken off the table and Mr. Pantaleo fired, Mr. London said in an interview, “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.”

If that deal had been carried out, Mr. Pantaleo would have been out of the NYPD but without the same stigma and a reduced pension coming to him down the line. It’s safe to say there wouldn’t have been nearly the uproar from the police unions that ensued: how could there be if Mr. Lynch was involved in signing off on the arrangement?

But those discussions apparently took place without the knowledge of Mr. de Blasio. And after NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Trials Rosemarie Maldonado issued her recommendation for firing Aug. 2 based finding him guilty in a departmental trial of “recklessly” using the chokehold, the Mayor at a City Hall press conference called it “a step toward justice and accountability…And I hope that this will now bring the Garner family a sense of closure and the beginning of some peace.”

Three days before that, during the Democratic presidential debate, he had made one of several references to “justice for the Garner family,” with the clear implication that it would not include mercy for Officer Pantaleo.

Members of Mr. Garner’s family had made it plain over the course of the NYPD trial in late spring that nothing less than Mr. Pantaleo’s firing would be justice in their eyes, and that they wanted to see other cops at the scene who became involved in the violent takedown and then did nothing to help the stricken man receive medical attention dismissed as well. The NYPD’s decision not to bring internal charges against those cops, who had been given immunity from prosecution by the Staten Island District Attorney’s office in return for their grand-jury testimony, had long ago indicated that they wouldn’t be held to account by any authority beyond their own consciences.

And so without spelling it out, Mr. de Blasio had been definitive about what he believed Mr. O’Neill’s ultimate decision should be, and it didn’t include the equivalent of a plea bargain following conviction.

A Deal Derailed

In the two weeks that followed, however, the Police Commissioner had deputized Chief Monahan to see whether such a deal could be worked out. According to Mr. London, it would have required that Mr. Pantaleo leave 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 on Aug. 16, Mr. London said, he received a text telling him, “There will be no paperwork prepared” that weekend. Three days later, Commissioner O’Neill announced his decision to fire Officer Pantaleo, spelling out in great detail all the issues he had weighed in reaching it, including the “mistakes” made by both the cop and Mr. Garner.

He then said, “But none of us can take back our decisions, most especially when they lead to the death of another human being…the unintended consequences 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.”

Reflecting on his 34 years as a cop before he became Commissioner in September 2016, Mr. O’Neill continued, “If I was still a cop, I’d probably be mad at me.”

The condemnations came hot and heavy from Mr. Lynch, who about an hour after that press conference said at the PBA’s headquarters, “Today, The Job is dead.” He went on to describe the NYPD as “rudderless and frozen” and charged that its leadership was “absolutely afraid of the criminal advocates.”

Mr. O’Neill had anticipated such criticism: during the half-hour press conference explaining his decision, he said, “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.”

Based on those principles, his ultimate decision was the correct one. Before he arrived at it, though, he tried to find a middle ground between what the PBA considered an outcome it could live with and what the Mayor believed had to be done to mollify, if not completely satisfy, Mr. Garner’s family and his own supporters in the city’s minority communities. It proved an impossible task, something that Mr. O’Neill probably should have realized.

Mullins Unloads

Perhaps the unkindest criticism he absorbed—if you didn’t consider the volatility of the source—came after he spoke at City Hall Nov. 4 about his decision to resign and Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins fired off a statement saying, “Like any coward, Commissioner O’Neill chose to run off before the entire empire falls. I believe he will go down as the worst Police Commissioner in NYPD history.”

Just as Mr. Lynch’s denunciation 11 weeks earlier of what the firing of Officer Pantaleo had done to the NYPD had a subtext to it, so did Mr. Mullins’s eruption. In his case, the fury had its origin three years ago, in another charged situation in which Mr. de Blasio and his hand-picked choice to succeed Mr. Bratton demonstrated their awkwardness in communicating. It was that incident that began Mr. O’Neill’s estrangement from those who previously regarded him as a “cop’s cop,” including the two union leaders.

On Oct. 18, 2016, six officers including Sgt. Hugh Barry came to an apartment building on Pugsley Ave. in The Bronx in response to a neighbor’s complaint that Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old woman who had been dealing with mental illness going back to her college days, was behaving irrationally. According to police accounts, the Sergeant after 10 minutes of reasoning with Ms. Danner was able to persuade her to put down a pair of scissors she had been brandishing. But she abruptly grabbed a baseball bat and swung it in his direction, prompting Mr. Barry to fire two shots, one of which struck her in the chest and killed her.

Mr. O’Neill, who reportedly was out of town, was briefed on the incident by Mr. Monahan, who at that time was Chief of Patrol, and it was quickly announced that Sergeant Barry had been placed on modified assignment despite an initial conclusion among top cops that the shooting was justified.

The following morning, after the Commissioner spoke at a previously scheduled Citizens Crime Commission breakfast, he was asked about the incident by reporters and indicated that the responding officers had not followed departmental policy to “isolate and contain” emotionally disturbed persons and await the arrival of Emergency Services Unit personnel who had special training for such situations.

“We failed,” he said of the department’s handling of Ms. Danner.

A Rush to Judgment

That was enough to infuriate Sergeant Mullins, who blasted the Commissioner for denying due process to Sergeant Barry by “putting an expectation of results in the minds of people who will ultimately investigate the case.”

But Mr. O’Neill’s remark describing the failure as a collective one was stepped all over by the Mayor’s excoriation of Sergeant Barry early that afternoon. His unusual press conference was marked by two physical details even before he spoke: the absence of any NYPD officials in the City Hall Blue Room, and the removal of the mayoral podium in favor of a table from which he addressed reporters.

He said that the Police Department had responded to 128,000 EDP cases so far that year and that this was the first to end in a fatality. “There are times in a huge organization when an individual does not follow their training, does not follow their instructions,” the Mayor said. “The folks that had the training to handle this kind of situation were available and should’ve been deferred to.”

This was an oversimplification: veteran cops said it was not unusual for patrol officers to try to defuse such a situation themselves, because ESU officers were sometimes stretched thin and unable to get to a scene quickly. And two years earlier, they noted, a cop in Jamaica, Queens had suffered severe head injuries when a mentally-ill man without warning struck him with a hatchet.

The Mayor questioned why, if Sergeant Barry felt the need to use force, he hadn’t deployed his taser rather than his gun. The problem with that lament was that tasers sometimes have no immediate impact on their target, and also occasionally have a deadly impact themselves.

Mr. de Blasio spoke of a conversation he had that morning with Ms. Danner’s sister, whom he described as “heartbroken,” saying she told him of several previous cases in which cops had responded to complaints about Deborah’s behavior and resolved the situation without having to use force.

It wasn’t clear whether he made the decision to face reporters without top NYPD officials present, or if Mr. O’Neill had balked at being part of the press conference because he disagreed with the Mayor’s decision to put the full weight on Sergeant Barry.

Scapegoating Backlash

Criticism of the Mayor’s remarks then came from some unexpected quarters. Veteran civil-liberties lawyer Norman Siegel suggested Mr. de Blasio had overreacted because of a recent New York Times article quoting some of his supporters saying they were disappointed that he hadn’t done more to change the interactions between cops and minority communities. He also questioned Commissioner O’Neill’s decision to say “we failed,” noting that it made it harder for him to claim objectivity if he eventually had to decide Sergeant Barry’s fate after a departmental trial.

But Richard Green, the founder of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, said the Mayor was more at fault for reasons that included the likelihood that “eventually you’re going to have to put it in the hands of a grand jury…as Mayor, his opinion goes a little further than you and I.” He added that coming down so harshly on Sergeant Barry would alienate many rank-and-file cops, as well as their union leaders, particularly when the Sergeant’s culpability was a question still to be resolved. (He was acquitted in February 2018 of murder charges by a Bronx Supreme Court Justice who ruled that prosecutors had not met their burden of proving that Mr. Barry did not have legitimate reason to fear for his life when he used deadly force.)

Mr. Green, assessing what was known then of the confrontation, noted, “They said he had spent 10 minutes trying to calm her down before she dropped the scissors, which is an indication that he didn’t go in there to cause her harm.”

Before that, Mr. de Blasio had badly damaged his relationship with cops by his conduct in two emotional settings pertaining to the Garner case. One had been another Blue Room press conference, two weeks after Mr. Garner’s death, in which he was flanked by Commissioner Bratton and the Rev. Al Sharpton. It was designed to convey unity as they let the case proceed, but Mr. Sharpton took a page from his rabble-rousing past by questioning Mr. Bratton’s assertion that better training would prevent recurrences and declaring, “The best way to stop police from using chokeholds is to perp-walk one of those that did.”

‘Threw Us Under Bus’

The Mayor tried to cool things down by urging that community leaders show patience and let the NYPD do its work, but he infuriated cops by not scolding the Reverend Al for using the public event to reprise his old sidewalk act. And he sent his relationship with cops from uneasy to untenable in his reaction following the grand-jury decision not to indict Officer Pantaleo by telling a black congregation in Staten Island of the times he and his wife had warned their son Dante about being extra careful in any encounter with police. Mr. Lynch accused him of “throwing us under the bus” by painting all cops as biased.

Oddly enough, Mr. de Blasio has never said anything as remotely harsh about Mr. Pantaleo as he did about Sergeant Barry, who still faces a possible NYPD trial—notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Barry was facing far-more exigent circumstances when he took the action that led to a death, and in his case, dealing with someone armed with a potentially lethal weapon. But that disparity to some degree exemplifies the Mayor’s clumsiness in dealing with people while under stress.

That inability to think through the impact of his words put Mr. O’Neill in a rough spot with his troops less than five weeks after he had succeeded Mr. Bratton. One veteran Sergeant summed up the impact of the Commissioner’s “we failed” pronouncement when combined with the Mayor’s reaming out of Sergeant Barry by saying: “This was his first big test and he basically went with the ‘electeds,’ so people are saying he showed his true colors.”

Would the Mayor have turned loose his emotions in that setting if Mr. Bratton had still been Commissioner? Probably not, or the man who had given him law-enforcement credibility when he first took office might have quit in response. Mr. O’Neill was too new in the job to do that without risking criticism for not being up to the pressure of running the NYPD.

In a sense, he faced a similar moment of truth before deciding to fire Officer Pantaleo. A former Deputy Commissioner for Trials, Arnie Kriss, has questioned Mr. O’Neill’s decision to have Chief Monahan negotiate a possible deal with the PBA; rather than having the department’s top uniformed officer, who “is not a lawyer” handle that duty, he said, it would have been more appropriate to delegate it to either the Department Advocate’s Office or First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, who oversees that unit.

A Hint of Ambivalence

That wouldn’t cancel out Mr. de Blasio’s violation of Mr. O’Neill’s prerogatives if he substituted his own judgment for the Commissioner’s, Mr. Kriss said. And yet, “Everybody seems to have known the Mayor was opposed to a deal. So why engage in the conversation about one, unless O’Neill believed the penalty should be less than dismissal?”

The possibility that the Commissioner changed his mind under prodding, he continued, suggested that at the time he didn’t have his eyes on a less-stressful job in the private sector, or he’d have risked being fired.

Whatever the dynamic of Mr. O’Neill’s departure, Mr. Kriss said, one reality doesn’t change for the Mayor and incoming Commissioner Dermot Shea regarding the police force: “Cops put their ass on the line every day. They want to believe management is behind them.”


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