Updated Sep 12, 2016
By MARK TOOR
Civil-rights groups and elected officials are protesting the city’s appeal of a court order for the Civilian Complaint Review Board to release information on complaints against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who wrapped his arm around Eric Garner’s neck in bringing him to the ground when he resisted arrest for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Died Short Time Later
Mr. Garner, who weighed close to 400 pounds and had diabetes, asthma and circulatory problems, died of a heart attack about an hour after the encounter in July 2014.
A civil suit against the city filed by Mr. Garner’s family was settled last year for $5.9 million by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, so the records on Mr. Pantaleo are not necessary for litigation.
But the Legal Aid Society filed a request for a summary of complaints against Mr. Pantaleo that the CCRB found were justified. “Our city needs to know if the systems of police oversight failed to prevent Garner’s death by failing to deter an officer with a history of excessive force,” according to the request, which was filed in February 2015.
Many who saw a bystander’s video of the arrest believed that Mr. Pantaleo used a chokehold, which is banned by the NYPD, to bring down Mr. Garner. Mr. Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, said his client told a Staten Island grand jury that he had actually used a different hold he learned in the Police Academy.
The grand jury declined in December 2014 to indict him. The U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating whether Mr. Pantaleo violated Mr. Garner’s civil rights, and any NYPD disciplinary action is on hold until the DOJ reaches a decision. Mr. Pantaleo is on modified duty without his gun and badge.
City Stands on State Law
Attorneys for the city opposed the Legal Aid Society request, saying that disciplinary records were protected by Section 50-a of the State Civil Rights Law, which they contended requires judicial approval before officers’ disciplinary records are released to a member of the public or to an employee suing a police department.
In July 2015, State Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger ruled that CCRB records were not protected by Section 50-a because it was a separate agency from the NYPD.
“The summary, as requested, will provide only the most rudimentary of information,” she wrote. “Given the specific facts of this matter, and the tailored request at stake, the court is not convinced that the release of the summary as defined herein is likely to create any risk of harm to Mr. Pantaleo.”
The officer argued that an article about a CCRB complaint in the Staten Island Advance had brought death threats. The complaint, part of which the agency found to be unsubstantiated, alleged that Mr. Pantaleo and another cop had pulled down the pants of drug suspects and flicked their genitals in 2012. The board substantiated only the portion of the complaint alleging an abuse of authority based on an unlawful stop ordered by Sgt. Ignacio Coca.
Looking to Protect NYPD?
“This court believes that any adverse reactions expressed toward Mr. Pantaleo have their roots in the video of the [Garner] incident, which speaks for itself,” Justice Schlesinger wrote. “Moreover, the court believes that any backlash in response to the release of the summary, while improbable in the first instance, is more likely to be directed at the NYPD.”
The city appealed, arguing that the confidentiality law covered the CCRB. “Courts have recognized that Civil Rights Law 50-a balances two important values—protecting the privacy of officer records and ensuring public accountability for law-enforcement officers,” said Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter.
City Council caucuses for progressives, blacks, Asians and Latinos; Public Advocate Letitia James; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer; Communities United for Police Reform and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press joined in filing friend-of-the-court briefs defending Justice Schlesinger’s decision.
At a press conference Sept. 6 outside City Hall, advocates seemed to devote more time to opposing the law than to supporting her ruling.
“New Yorkers deserve transparency, the family of Eric Garner deserves transparency, and real reform does not exist without it,” said Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of criminal practice for the Legal Aid Society.
“The public has a right to know why did government fail at its most core responsibility of public safety,” said Councilman Ritchie Torres. “The CCRB should not be protecting the NYPD from public accountability.”
“If we’re going to do right by these mothers, if we’re going to do right by these families, if we’re going to do right by what justice calls for, it’s obvious that those records have to be released,” said Councilman Brad Lander.
“An administration that came into office promising police reform should not keep the public in the dark about policing,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said the law was necessary. It was “passed to deal with important issues in the pursuit of justice and in protection of those who risk their lives to enforce the law,” he said. “Nothing has changed to negate the need for that law, and we will strongly opposes any changes to it.”
Don’t Like It, But…
The State Committee for Open Government has called repeatedly for its repeal. Both Mayor de Blasio and soon-to-depart Police Commissioner William J. Bratton criticized the law, saying it keeps secret information that should be made public. Mr. Bratton said it would keep the department from releasing information on any administrative trial Mr. Pantaleo might be required to undergo.
Mr. de Blasio said at a Police Headquarters press conference Sept. 6 that he would move to change the law. In the meantime, he said, “it’s quite clear what the law says from our point of view, and we have to respect the law.”