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For O'Neill, Pantaleo Decision is Lose, Lose
August 5, 2019
Last summer, Deputy Commissioner John Miller hosted a party at his summer place on Long Island. Police Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill attended. Unlike his famed two predecessors, Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton — who likely would have turned up with an entourage that included at least a couple of bodyguards — O’Neill arrived on his motorcycle with his motorcycling cop buddy.
In short, unlike Kelly and Bratton, O’Neill is a modest, unpretentious guy. His dilemma is that he takes his marching orders from a mayor who distrusts the police and who is distrusted by them.
Sometime in the near future, perhaps this month, O’Neill will have to make a decision that is as fraught with potential danger as any that Bratton or Kelly ever made: whether to fire police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the “chokehold” death of Eric Garner.
The stakes are enormous. On one side is the fear of civil unrest, as threatened by progressive activists and Garner’s family (with Al Sharpton in the background). On the other is the possibility that, as PBA president Pat Lynch put it, O’Neill could “lose the department.”
There have been more egregious cases of NYPD cops’ actions resulting in the deaths of unarmed civilians than Pantaleo’s. Timothy Stansbury was accidentally shot by police officer Richard Neri, who had his gun drawn as he patrolled the rooftop of Stansbury’s Brooklyn apartment building. Ramarley Graham was shot by officer Richard Haste after Haste chased Graham into his apartment, thinking Graham had a gun. He did not. And of course, there is Amadou Diallo, shot by four cops who fired 41 shots as Diallo stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building.
A Brooklyn grand jury chose not to indict Neri. At a departmental trial two years later, he was found guilty of failing to secure his weapon, and was suspended for 30 days.
What has made the Garner/Pantaleo case larger than the individuals themselves were Garner’s dying words — “I can’t breathe” — which were captured on a cell phone video. Together with the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a month later, Garner’s death became a catalyst for the so-called “Black Lives Matter” movement and the narrative that police departments are willy-nilly killing black Americans.
The case even seeped into last week’s Democratic presidential debate when Mayor de Blasio’s progressive soulmates — in particular NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand — lit into him for not immediately firing Pantaleo. By law, which de Blasio has followed, only the police commissioner can fire a cop — and only after a prolonged and exhaustive process.
De Blasio has mostly kept his nose out of police affairs — ever since in 2016 he appeared to publicly prejudge the actions of Sgt. Hugh Barry, who fatally shot Deborah Danner, a mentally disturbed Bronx woman who Barry claimed seemed about to strike him with a baseball bat. A Bronx judge subsequently acquitted him.
As for O’Neill — who was described at his swearing in by de Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray as a “chronic do-gooder” — he has supported the mayor’s controversial policing strategies of “restraint” and “de-escalation.”
Following the dousing of uniformed cops on at least five separate occasions, O’Neill suggested that by walking away and not arresting the perpetrators, the cops’ actions improved relations with communities. At least publicly, neither he nor the mayor has connected the policies of “restraint” and “de-escalation” to the officers’ dousing.
In the Pantaleo case, O’Neill was aided last week by Police Trials Commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado’s recommendation to fire him. This gives O’Neill cover if — as seems 99.9 percent likely — he chooses to fire Pantaleo. He can now claim he merely followed the Trial Commissioner’s recommendation, despite his having the authority to overrule her.
Copyright © 2019 Leonard Levitt