NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Staten Island man Eric Garner in July 2014 while administering a chokehold explicitly prohibited by the department, appears to have a lengthy history of misconduct complaints with the Criminal Complaint Review Board.
Specifically, according to leaked documents obtained by the news outlet ThinkProgress, the officer had seven complaints filed against him with the CCRB when he encountered Garner. The CCRB has not confirmed the authenticity of the documents, though multiple attorneys told the outlet they appeared authentic, and would have been difficult to forge.
This latest Pantaleo revelation raises questions about the NYPD's disciplinary track record, at a time when advocates are pushing for more transparency on this front, challenging section 50-a of New York State Civil Rights Law which the NYPD has used to justify withholding disciplinary records of police officers who have been accused of misconduct.
"Those public employees who have the most power over people's lives are the least accountable," Robert Freeman, director of the State Committee on Open Government, told Gothamist recently. "And to my mind, that's backwards."
Pantaleo is currently on desk duty, awaiting the outcome of a Justice Department investigation. A grand jury declined to indict him 2014, prompting mass protests. Last year, he received a raise. As for the substantiated CCRB complaints, ThinkProgress reports that the CCRB recommended stronger penalties than were ultimately administered. For a 2011 vehicle stop, Pantaleo got additional training; for a stop-and-frisk, two docked vacation days.
A total of 14 misconduct allegations were lodged against Pantaleo before he killed Garner, according to the outlet, four of which were substantiated. Two of the substantiated allegations pertained to the vehicle stop and search, and two to the stop-and-frisk, reported by DNAInfo last year—one of the few public glimpses into Pantaleo's disciplinary past before this week.
According to ThinkProgress, the allegations are, in total:
...that Pantaleo refused to seek medical treatment for someone in 2009, hit someone against an inanimate object in 2011, made abusive vehicular stops and searches on two separate occasions in 2012, and used physical force during another incident in 2013.
While the 2009 and 2013 allegations were unsubstantiated, Legal Aid attorney Cynthia Conti-Cook stressed to Gothamist on Wednesday that, based on her experience as a civil rights litigator, "unsubstantiated is not exonerated, it's 'inconclusive.' The finding isn't enough to trigger discipline but it certainly suggests allegations may have merit."
The push for disciplinary transparency gained momentum last September, when outgoing NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton ordered the department to stop providing reporters with brief discipline summaries. (Bratton said that he'd learned the decades-old practice was in violation of 50-a.) Mayor de Blasio has supported Bratton's decision to start withholding disciplinary records, saying it's necessary to follow state law. He's even called on the state to change 50-a—an appeal that rings hollow for advocates, who believe de Blasio could simply revert to the practice the NYPD upheld for decades.
"If the mayor—who was elected on a platform of police reform—wanted to disclose NYPD discipline records, then why on earth would he challenge a court decision affirming that very preference?" asked City Council members Ritchie Torres, Antonio Reynoso, and Carlso Menchaca in a September op-ed.
On Tuesday, the Legal Aid society presented oral arguments for its fourth legal action pertaining to 50-a. In it, Legal Aid argues that the NYPD's interpretation of 50-a is overly broad, and that the department should release brief summaries of officer discipline, as it did for years. According to Legal Aid, the summaries are too brief to be damning. Attorneys would simply use the summaries to request subpoenas; detailed disciplinary records still wouldn't be made available without a judge's permission.
Without disciplinary summaries, said Conti-Cook, its difficult for the public to contextualize this latest Pantaleo leak—it's hard know how Pantaleo measures up to other officers, or what types of punishment have been leveraged in similar cases.
"We still don't have a full picture of Pantaleo, even if what was released yesterday was correct and authentic," Conti-Cook said. "And now that we have [the CCRB records] we really don't know what to do with them, because we don't have anything to compare them to."
The CCRB recently updated its website, allowing civilians to scroll through dozens of data visualizations of 192,000 police misconduct allegations filed over the last decade. Using public data, ThinkProgress reported that 1,750 current NYPD officers, or 4.9 percent of the force, have received at least as many complaints as Pantaleo has. But Legal Aid argues that this data isn't entirely helpful, since it can't be sorted by precinct, or officer name.
"That's why we want the disciplinary summaries," Conti-Cook said. "It's going to make it clear to officers that their misconduct will not be secret."
The CCRB declined to confirm the authenticity of the leak to Gothamist. "If a current or former CCRB staff member were to leak or unlawfully take confidential investigation records, he or she would be subject to termination and possible criminal prosecution," said Board Secretary Jerika Richardson in a statement. "The CCRB has a zero tolerance policy for unlawful and criminal behavior."