Opinion | To Honor Eric Garner, Mayor Must Plow Ahead With Police Reform

Opinion | To Honor Eric Garner, Mayor Must Plow Ahead With Police Reform

Like so many other black men in the United States, Eric Garner has been denied justice even in death.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is considering, but is expected to reject, federal civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer whose use of a chokehold on Mr. Garner led to his death on a Staten Island street in 2014.

A state grand jury already declined to indict Mr. Pantaleo on homicide charges in 2014. Obama Justice Department officials sat on the case for nearly a year, as civil rights prosecutors in Washington feuded with federal prosecutors in New York who didn’t think the evidence was strong enough. The Justice Department asked the city to delay police disciplinary proceedings while it was considering the case. It landed on Mr. Rosenstein’s desk in recent weeks when civil rights prosecutors recommended bringing charges over the objections of the New York prosecutors.

Hope for any justice probably lies in Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, James O’Neill, doing what probably should have been done years ago: firing Mr. Pantaleo.

But the bigger question is why, given his record, Mr. Pantaleo was on the street the day he wrapped his arm around Mr. Garner’s throat, and why New York police officers so often avoid real discipline for wrongdoing.

By the time Mr. Pantaleo approached Mr. Garner outside a Staten Island beauty supply store because he thought he was selling untaxed loose cigarettes, the city’s independent Civilian Complaint Review Board had substantiated four allegations of abuse against him in two incidents since he joined the department in 2006, according to leaked disciplinary records published by ThinkProgress last year.

That record should have served as a red flag. As of May, just 8 percent of the city’s 36,000 police officers have ever had a single complaint against them substantiated by the review board. Just 550 officers — 2 percent of the force — have had two substantiated complaints. Mr. Pantaleo was disciplined just once, lightly. After an abusive frisk in 2012, the Police Department docked two days of his vacation pay.

The Garner case is an example of a larger problem: Like his predecessors, Mr. de Blasio, who was elected promising to make policing fairer for black and Latino New Yorkers, has not done enough to hold the police accountable for misconduct and abuse.

There are signs of progress. Complaints against officers are down since Mr. de Blasio took office. So are police stops, though they had already begun a steep decline in 2013 under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, after a federal judge struck down the city’s aggressive use of the tactic known as stop and frisk as unconstitutional.

But in many ways the mayor — stung in his first term when hundreds of police officers turned their backs on him at the funerals of two police officers murdered because of the uniform they wore — has resisted attempts at reform.

Mr. de Blasio opposed legislation increasing oversight of police stops, eventually backing a more limited version amid the threat that council members would override his veto. He threatened to veto legislation that would have made the use of a chokehold by a police officer a crime.

Many of the racial disparities under Mr. Bloomberg that Mr. de Blasio rightfully denounced have persisted. Arrests for marijuana possession are down to about 17000 a year, half of what they were under Mr. Bloomberg. But city data shows blacks and Latinos continue to make up an overwhelming majority of those arrested. Police Department officials have said their enforcement mirrors complaints but have yet to provide compelling data to back up the claim. Facing political pressure, Mr. de Blasio said on Tuesday that the police would overhaul their marijuana enforcement policy within 30 days.

A report from the Civilian Complaint Review Board in December found that the police commissioner was increasingly rejecting the board’s disciplinary recommendations. Police officials say many of the complaints substantiated by the board are for minor infractions.

The public will just have to take their word for that, since the city no longer discloses disciplinary records of police officers, citing a state civil rights law that the mayor and Mr. O’Neill say they oppose but that can be changed only by the State Legislature. Republican control of the Senate makes that unlikely.

In the almost four years since Mr. Garner’s death, names of the black men and boys who have died unjustly at the hands of police — Walter Scott in South Carolina, Philando Castile in Minnesota, Tamir Rice in Cleveland — have been memorialized, honoring the humanity that has been lost. But more needs to be done.

The officer who used a chokehold on Mr. Garner should be fired. But the mayor needs to make it clear that New York City will hold the rest of its 36,000 police officers accountable and will work to make that discipline public if they abuse their powers and violate the public trust.

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