03/22/17 05:04 PM
By AZI PAYBARAH
The New York Police Department is investigating who leaked a document showing a city watchdog agency recommended disciplining NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo at least four times before he fatally choked Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014.
“The leak was totally improper. It was illegal. It needs to be investigated,” NYPD deputy commissioner Larry Byrne told reporters at police headquarters Wednesday afternoon.
He was referring to a document published online Tuesday by ThinkProgress from an anonymous source who claimed to be an employee of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. “We’re not going to say more about it, because we don’t want to encourage this kind of behavior," Byrne said. "We’re working with CCRB to identify who the leaker was. And right now, that is an ongoing process. We can’t say much about it.”
The probe is the latest twist in what critics have said is City Hall’s conflicting stance on police transparency.
For decades, the NYPD made available information about outcomes of police disciplinary proceedings as part of a larger dossier detailing personnel changes within the NYPD. The department now has more than 36,000 uniformed officers, by far the largest police department in the country.
But last year, de Blasio’s administration stopped providing that larger document, and the disciplinary information inside of it, saying the city only now realized such disclosure was in violation of state law shielding police personnel records from public release. The city is currently fighting four lawsuits related to this mater. A judge on Tuesday said she was “boggle[d]” by the city’s abrupt turnaround.
The leak probe also puts the de Blasio administration in the position of hunting for a person who made public information the mayor and police commissioner have said they wanted made public.
Minutes after Byrne called the leak illegal, his boss, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, said such information ultimately needs to be released.
“I’ve gone on record saying that if we’re going to continue to build trust, [there] has to be transparency,” the commissioner told reporters at police headquarters.
Last October, de Blasio’s press office released a statement outlining its proposed changes to the state law which the administration believed would allow police disciplinary records to be released. At the time, de Blasio went as far as to say, "The public interest is disserved” by the current law, known as State Civil Rights Law Section 50-a.
De Blasio still says he has not seen the alleged Pantaleo records, and he will not comment on the report more than 24 hours after it was originally published.
Asked at an unrelated press conference in Albany Wednesday if Pantaleo’s history of substantiated allegations of misconduct was troubling, the mayor again said he has not seen the records. His spokesman was quoted in the initial ThinkProgress report and his office declined on Wednesday to explain why the mayor had not looked at the widely available document.
The mayor defended his public safety record to reporters in Albany, casting Pantaleo as a vestige from an earlier, less-sophisticated era of the NYPD.
“I can speak to the approach being taken today almost three years after the death of Eric Garner,” which de Blsaio called “a very, very different approach.” He said officers are now “recruited and trained differently” and said "additional monitoring” is in place to catch troublesome trends sooner.
“I think it’s going to lead to different outcomes,” he said.
Cynthia Conti-Cook, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, which is suing the city to release police disciplinary information, said in a statement, “Instead of chasing whistleblowers, Byrne should focus more time and effort on how to make the Department more transparent and accountable for all New Yorkers.”
The federal Department of Justice has empaneled a grand jury to consider whether to bring charges against Pantaleo. The NYPD’s probe into the matter is completed, but the city has not announced results of that probe, pending the outcome of the federal investigation.
Another officer, Richard Haste, is currently awaiting the outcome of an NYPD internal trial over his fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager in 2012. A grand jury and federal investigators declined to bring charges against Haste in the shooting death of Ramarley Graham, and the NYPD said the shooting was within departmental guidelines. But the department is determining whether to terminate Haste for violating departmental procedures by entering Graham’s apartment without proper training, backup or supervision.
O’Neill — who has final say over internal disciplinary matters at the department — is likely to decide the fate of Pantaleo and Haste. The commissioner told reporters Wednesday he tries to stick closely to the recommendations made by oversight entities, like the CCRB.
“I take my time and I look at the totality of the circumstances, and I look at what precedent has been for penalties of like infractions,” he said.
Speaking generally, he said, “As I’ve been going through the cases, I haven’t strayed too far. There’s a couple of times, a couple of instances, where I take a look at what the police officer does and based on my 35 years as a police officer … Sometimes the penalty goes up. And sometimes the penalty goes down. And I do have to base that on a lot of my personal knowledge.”
Asked if the CCRB was working with the NYPD on the leak investigation, Jerika Richardson, senior adviser and secretary to the board, said in a statement the CCRB “is internally investigating the unauthorized leak of documents” and, notably, added, “If and when it becomes appropriate, we would work with the relevant law enforcement authorities.”
Richardson went to say unauthorized release of CCRB information could lead to “termination and possible criminal prosecution,” because they have “a zero tolerance policy for unlawful, criminal behavior.”
Carimah Townes, the criminal justice reporter at ThinkProgress who published the document, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
-- Additional reporting contributed by Jimmy Vielkind
This story has been updated with further comment from CCRB.