The release of previously secret disciplinary records of the NYPD officer that killed Eric Garner is stirring controversy in New York City, reinvigorating a heated debate among activists and city officials over transparency and police accountability.
On Tuesday, ThinkProgress published the disciplinary records of Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who used a prohibited chokehold against Garner in 2014. The records — which were previously hidden from the public — originated from the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent city agency that fields complaints about officer misconduct. They were leaked to ThinkProgress from an anonymous source who was discovered by the agency and forced to resign.
The news also forced the CCRB to formally confirm that the documents are real.
The CCRB’s actions triggered indignation from Cynthia Conti-Cook, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Unit. The group is currently involved in lawsuits to obtain disciplinary records from both the CCRB and the NYPD.
“When there is more political will to fire a whistleblower than an officer who killed an unarmed man, it sends a message about the Mayor’s capacity to act quickly and therefore simultaneously sends a message about his lack of political will to hold police like Pantaleo…accountable for misconduct,” she said, referring to the fact that Pantaleo remains employed by the NYPD, and received a raise last year.
Civil rights groups and several city officials were also outraged by the content of the documents, which showed that Pantaleo had 7 complaints and 4 substantiated allegations years before his encounter with Garner—far more than the overwhelming majority of his fellow NYPD officers, according to CCRB data. The revelations raised questions about whether Pantaleo was properly disciplined, as the documents showed that the NYPD repeatedly enacted lesser penalties than those recommended by the CCRB.
Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said that earlier review of the records could have saved her son’s life.
“Someone should have taken a look at his record a long time ago,” Carr told the New York Daily News. “If they had done that maybe my son would still be alive.”
Several local lawmakers voiced shock with what they said was the city’s failure to properly discipline Pantaleo, with one calling the leaker a “hero.” Jumaane D. Williams, Council Member from Brooklyn’s 45th District, told ThinkProgress that the revelations call into question the decision not to indict the officer, who is now on desk duty.
“On police transparency, we have gone backwards,” he told ThinkProgress in an interview. “Here we have a [former] District Attorney who claimed he can’t indict [Pantaleo]…and now we find out that there were substantiated complaints — that’s a big thing.”
“People ask us why black lives matter — it’s because of cases like Eric Garner,” he added.
The controversy rekindled a debate over whether the city should push for more transparency on matters of police discipline. Critics note that the CCRB and the NYPD previously released records with information similar to those found in the leaked documents, but abruptly halted the practice in 2014, arguing that state civil rights law “50-a” prohibited the sharing of such details.
“This CCRB employee is just the latest casualty in the City’s battle to keep police misconduct secret.”
As Politico New York pointed out, the situation has placed Mayor Bill de Blasio — who has previously said he wants police disciplinary information to be made public and called for the law to be changed — in a precarious position: a city agency has now forced out an employee who leaked documents that the mayor purportedly wants to be made public.
Mayor de Blasio — who campaigned on a platform of police reform — dodged questions about the leak throughout the week. He repeatedly said he hadn’t seen the documents days after their release, even though the mayor’s spokesman was quoted in ThinkProgress’ original story on the leak. The Mayor’s press office has since declined to comment to ThinkProgress, despite multiple requests.
He finally discussed the documents and the forced resignation on Friday morning, telling reporters he didn’t “personally” push out the employee. Nevertheless, he defended the decision to do so.
“We have to follow the law until we change it,” he reportedly said, saying that the leak of records is “clearly against state law.”
But others argue that the mayor’s position is a new development, and part of a growing culture of secrecy around police discipline. Andrew Case, former spokesperson for the CCRB who left in June 2009, noted that the CCRB has had disciplinary records leaked in the past — as recently as 2007 — but did not attempt to fire employees.
“Our response to it was not to root out leaks,” Case, who now works as a lawyer in New York City, told ThinkProgress. “The real issue to the CCRB then, as it should remain now, is the very low level of discipline that the NYPD enforces on officers. The NYPD has routinely — and for decades — imposed minimal or no discipline on officers the CCRB has found committed misconduct.”
Williams also harped on the the disparity between the swift action taken against the leaker and the years-long quest for action to be taken against Pantaleo.
“What is most chilling to me is the speed with which you can fire this employee, [compared to] the length of time it takes to fire Pantaleo, who murdered someone on camera for the whole world to see,” he said. “The only two people I’ve seen action one is the one man who filmed [the Garner incident] , and the employee who leaked the documents — yet Pantaleo is still on the force.”
NYCLU Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn, who is also part of a lawsuit to make police disciplinary records public, expressed similar frustrations.
“The real issue to the CCRB then, as it should remain now, is the very low level of discipline that the NYPD enforces on officers.”
“This CCRB employee is just the latest casualty in the City’s battle to keep police misconduct secret,” Dunn said. “There simply is no good reason for disciplinary records like this to be withheld from the public, which has a right to know whether police officers who abuse civilians are disciplined. And public employees should not be put in the position of losing their jobs for making this type of information public.”
Joel Berger, a NYC attorney and former executive of the New York City Law Department, insisted such documents should be made public. Although he did not condone the leaker, he said the Mayor should have commented earlier, and insisted that “this material [should] be public, city hall should want it to be public, the NYPD should want it to public.”
“I’m convinced that [the city]…didn’t want people to see that the penalties are trivial.”
He claimed that the city’s resistance to releasing such information was telling.
“I’m convinced that [the city]…didn’t want people to see that the penalties are trivial,” he said, describing their sudden embrace of 50-a as a “coverup.” “This is not the type of thing they want the public to know about. They don’t want the public to know that the NYPD disciplinary system is a farce.”
Berger also called for even more detailed information about disciplinary records to be released.
“It’s not enough to know the list [of complaints],” he said. “We need to know what happened in these cases. We need to see the file in the cases. We need to interview the victims…The list itself is just a starting point.”
By contrast, the NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA)— the police union that represents most officers — blasted the leak in a statement earlier this week, saying their release “may have criminal implications and must be fully investigated.” They also celebrated the forced resignation of the leaker, describing it as a “positive first step” but calling for further investigation that could result in criminal prosecution.
When contacted by ThinkProgress, a PBA representative could not recall if they made similar demands after the 2007 leak. A search of their online list of press releases does not reveal any relevant statement about the story.
Meanwhile, oral arguments for one of the lawsuits regarding the release of disciplinary records were held on Tuesday. The judge in the case expressed puzzlement at the city’s sudden embrace of 50-a, saying the reversal “boggle[d]” her mind.
This post has been updated to clarify the nature of the documents and the response to the 2007 CCRB leak.