The first annual "Honor Our Police" rally was held yesterday to support the NYPD and its slain officers near the Franklin D. Roosevelt Boardwalk in Staten Island's South Beach neighborhood. The demonstration, which was held amidst increased scrutiny of the NYPD's Broken Windows policing strategy, especially surrounding the Eric Garner case, sought to honor the positive work done by NYPD officers and the sacrifice of officers slain in the line of duty.
Garner's death was not explicitly mentioned during the rally. On July 17, Officer Daniel Pantaleo forced Garner to the ground using a chokehold as he tried to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. Garner had a history of minor arrests, and his autopsy showed that the chokehold, combined with his obesity, likely triggered a fatal heart attack. NYPD policy has prohibited the use of chokeholds since 1993. Video of the arrest went viral. The Civilian Complaint Review Board is currently compiling a report on chokehold complaints.
"First of all, we don't know the situation. We hear a lot of stories, and there's always two sides to every story. This gentleman was doing something that was illegal. The police officers asked him to put his hands behind his back, and he refused to," said Steve Saporito, an EMT and reserve police officer who came from Haworth, NJ to offer his support.
"When you see a police officer that's destroyed or shot at, you don't see any rally, you don't see Sharpton going to that kind of stuff. It's not about black or white, it's about justice. There are so many black dudes that get shot up by themselves."
"Get people to know, in the streets, when you get into a confrontation with law enforcement, the best thing to do is step back, put your hands down, and be quiet," said George Cusick, a Westerleigh resident and former Correction officer, who was at the rally with his wife Danna.
"Step back, shut up, and let the police do their work."
"And this is free speech," Danna Cusick added. "They said free speech, we say free speech, it's the same thing. Support the families, support the police, two sides of the same issue."
Several area politicians were in attendance, including Republican Congressman Michael Grimm, who is currently awaiting trial on federal fraud charges, Republican Assemblyman Joe Borelli, Democratic Assemblyman Michael Cusick, Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, and former Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro.
"I know of no officer who, in their heart, intends to go out and harm anybody; they go out to keep us safe everyday," Grimm told us. "We shouldn't be so quick to judge until we've walked in their footsteps."
Ken Peterson, a retired NYPD officer, organized the event with the group Citizens in Support for All Law Enforcement Agencies.
"The job is about helping people and sharing their sadnesses, and giving so much of themselves...they do one thing wrong—and they're not allowed to do one thing wrong—they have to be perfect," he said. "I don't think they get fair media support at all, and I don't think today our local and federal governments are supporting them the way they should be."
Slain officers Gerard Carter, Matthew Dziergowski, John Kelly, Henry Wallburger, Thomas Schimenti, Rocco Laurie, Joe Garcia, and James Leahy were honored with short individual tributes and an honorary roll call. All the officers either worked or lived on Staten Island, and died in the line of duty within the past five decades (Wallburger died in 1964, Leahy on September 11, 2001.)
Dziergowski's widow, Marie, was especially moved by the support she received. Her husband was killed in 1999 in a collision on the West Shore Expressway while working the 123rd Precinct's midnight shift.
"It's beautiful, I love it because it's my community, my neighborhood. I grew up here, my husband grew up here, I'm raising my children a few blocks from here," Marie said. "Washington has memorials, but it's nice to have the local people."
"I just want to be here to support the NYPD, all the men and women who risk their lives everyday to keep us safe, and they need to know we're appreciated every day," said Dori Harasek, whose son is an officer in Staten Island's 120th Precinct.
Staten Island resident Gary Phaneuf appeared to be the only person nearby actively opposing the rally, standing before its start at the intersection of Father Capodanno Boulevard and Sand Lane with placards and an Eric Garner t-shirt.
"So it's a coincidence, it's just my imagination that Eric was killed July 17th, and today is...a couple months later?" said Phaneuf. "In terms of PR, the Daily News called [the 120th Precinct] the 'precinct from hell.' It wasn't a communist newspaper, it wasn't a black nationalist website, it was the Daily News."
Marybeth Melendez, the Democratic candidate running for the State Assembly's 64th District, offered a more conciliatory approach.
"Yes, I'm running for office, and yes I am a community activist, and yes I was at the rally for Eric Garner," Melendez said. "But here's the other end of the spectrum: I was married to a police officer for 15 years of my life and he gave me three beautiful children. And he's still on the job."
"Mr. Garner died because of the individuals that were there on that particular day that did not honor, and did not follow protocol. The police department as a whole has recognized this, and taken the steps necessary for reform. It doesn't do any good to continue negative, divisive conversations," she added.
"We cannot hold a trial in the street. You can't have a demonstration and immediately condemn someone, or the police unit itself just because they're the police," said Anthony Ferrentino, a retired state supreme court official and Korean War vet. "We don't know if it is true or not, so we have to keep a calm of mind, and think about it rather than react to feelings."