Whether or not discipline was meted out on the police officer who placed Eric Garner in a lethal chokehold may never be known, due to a law that protects New York City cops in such situations.
Outgoing NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill deBlasio said this week that a state civil rights law makes records of law enforcement personnel confidential, which means that an account of what happened — if anything — to Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who administered the chokehold to Garner will stay guarded and unavailable to the public.
“The mayor has made it clear yesterday under [NYS Civil Rights Law section] 50-A, ironically, if it was to go to trial that would be public, but technically, the results of that trial would not be disclosed,” Bratton said.
The NYPD recently ended a policy of letting the press look at records of disciplinary actions against police officers, explaining that it was a violation of the law.
Ultimately that means Pantaleo’s trial within the department would be public, but not the findings. “It would eventually get out, probably, but we will not be issuing any press statements to that effect,” Bratton said, according to the New York Daily News. He added that he would be open to revealing such results, but the New York state legislature would have to change the law.
However, there likely would be no disciplinary action against Pantaleo unless federal prosecutors decide to bring civil rights charges against him. A state grand jury chose not to indict him in Garner’s death.
The fatal 2014 encounter on Staten Island, N.Y., made “I can’t breathe!” a rallying cry in protests and national debate over policing, brutality and race and gave energy to the Black Lives Matter movement. Garner had refused to be handcuffed as police tried to arrest him on charges of selling loose cigarettes, was Black; Pantaleo is White.
The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused partly by a chokehold, a maneuver banned under NYPD policy. Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, said the officer used a permissible takedown move, not a chokehold, and argued Garner’s poor health was the main reason for his death.
Bratton said that the change of the department’s policy stems from a new examination of a 1976 state public records law, which protects records “used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” of personnel including police, correction officers and even firefighters. Those records would stay confidential unless the employees themselves release them or there is an order from a judge.
“That sounds ridiculous to me,” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother told the Daily News. “That means that some people are above the law and they aren’t going to suffer the consequences. It gives them the go-ahead to do what they please. It’s a double standard.”