For New York’s Police Union, Any Accountability For Eric Garner’s Death Is Too Much

Police unions resist accountability and exert influence over criminal justice reform.

For New York’s Police Union, Any Accountability For Eric Garner’s Death Is Too Much

Police unions resist accountability and exert influence over criminal justice reform.

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On Friday, an administrative judge recommended that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo be fired for placing Eric Garner in the illegal chokehold that killed him five years ago. That recommendation is not binding; Commissioner James O’Neill will make the final decision. (In keeping with department practices, Pantaleo was suspended without pay once the recommendation was issued.) It is understood that Mayor Bill de Blasio, as the commissioner’s boss, has influence over that decision but he has repeatedly announced that he has no intention of weighing in. The commissioner’s office has said he will issue his decision later this month. In the meantime, Pantaleo’s lawyer and the lawyer for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which prosecuted the disciplinary case, can comment on the judge’s conclusions.

The door on state and federal prosecutions has been closed. Pantaleo’s firing, if it happens, is the most serious form of accountability he will face for Garner’s death. It will be a meager, far from sufficient, form of justice for Garner and his family and the movement against police violence that has taken root in the years since Garner’s death.

But to New York’s powerful police unions it is still unacceptable. The head of New York’s largest union, Patrick Lynch of the Police Benevolent Association, denounced the administrative judge’s recommendation Friday, claiming it would “paralyze the NYPD for years to come.”

Lynch’s outrage came notwithstanding the fact that Garner’s death was deemed a homicide by the medical examiner, that Pantaleo has continued to work for the NYPD— albeit on desk duty—since 2014, that even before Garner’s death he had been the subject of more civilian complaints than 95 percent of NYPD officers, and that, even now, he has the option of resigning and preserving his pension before the commissioner makes a decision.

The union’s embrace of Pantaleo, who killed an unarmed man with an illegal chokehold, shows that it is unwilling to accept even the problematic framing of police misconduct as the problem of a “few bad apples.” It demonstrates a conviction that when officers take the lives of unarmed people they are simply doing their job. Lynch seemed to say that if Pantaleo is fired, he would call for a work slowdown.

The PBA’s stance is a reminder that, like so many police unions, it is an institution hostile to accountability for even the most indefensible conduct. The efforts of police unions also go beyond fighting for individual officers. They exert influence over the landscape of criminal justice in a range of ways, from contract negotiations to influencing lawmakers. Their resistance to reform is consistent, systematic, and too often effective because of the media platform they enjoy and the political power they deploy.

Police unions around the country resist transparency in legislatures and in court. In New York, Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law has been interpreted to protect law enforcement personnel and prevent disclosure of their disciplinary records. Pantaleo’s records, which were eventually leaked, were withheld from public view under the law. Despite sustained effort to repeal the law it remains in place. Even the administrative judge’s decision last week cannot be released.

In California, where for decades police misconduct records were among the least transparent, police unions fought bitterly to prevent the passage of Senate Bill 1421, which enables disclosure of records pertaining to serious misconduct. It went into effect Jan. 1, but unions have fought it in court, and police agencies across the state have responded by shredding documents.

In Texas, a powerful law enforcement union was successful in defeating a measure that would have required the disclosure of records related to deaths in custody.

In Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, police unions have fought the reform efforts of a new wave of “progressive prosecutors.” In Boston, the National Police Association filed a bar complaint against Rachael Rollins over her pledge to decline to prosecute low-level offenses. In Philadelphia, the local chapter of the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) has sued Larry Krasner over his do-not-call list of tainted police officers. In Chicago, the FOP has opposed State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s reform efforts. It led a protest against her in April.

They have also gone on the offensive against parole reform, a necessary avenue for reducing the number of older people sitting in prison on decades-long sentences. In New York, much of this has come in the form of outrage over the release of people convicted of killing police officers. While this opposition may not be surprising, what is troubling is how successful it has been for so long. In March Natasha Lennard reported for The Nation on how, for years, the PBA had a special arrangement with the parole board in which members or relatives could simply go online and press a button to generate a letter of opposition to a person’s release. When that arrangement was dismantled in 2014, without the union’s knowledge, the PBA reacted angrily.

When in 2018, the Parole Board released Herman Bell, a former Black Panther in prison for the murders of two police officers in 1971, the reaction from the police unions and their supporters was a predictable fury. Criminal justice experts, on the other hand, commended the board for properly fulfilling its obligation to “look forward rather than backward.”  Bell had been in prison for nearly 45 years and his release came after his eighth parole board appearance. The son of one of the officers killed is believed to have written one of the letters supporting his release. He was 70 at the time of his release.

Yet New York’s powerful Democratic politicians echoed law enforcement’s reactions. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints the parole commissioners, criticized the decision. Mayor de Blasio, whose administration the PBA and Lynch now seek to influence with their threats and denunciations, went further. He wrote a letter to the parole board, urging it “to reverse this decision and keep Herman Bell behind bars.”

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