Get Informed

Regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email

Close Newsletter Signup

Why Is New York Still Paying Eric Garner’s Killer Six Figures?

Daniel Pantaleo remains with the NYPD four years after Garner's death.

Demonstration after grand juries failed to indict the police officers involved in the death of Michael Brown and of Eric Garner.
Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images.

Why Is New York Still Paying Eric Garner’s Killer Six Figures?

Daniel Pantaleo remains with the NYPD four years after Garner's death.

July marked the fourth anniversary of Eric Garner’s death. The city of New York is still paying NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo—the man who put Eric Garner in a chokehold—six figures. The NYPD Patrol Guide prohibits chokeholds and states “excessive force will not be tolerated. [Officers] who use excessive force will be subject to Department discipline, up to and including dismissal.” Pantaleo’s employment isn’t completely surprising: In March, BuzzFeed published an investigation that showed over 300 NYPD officers who committed fireable offenses, including excessive force, were not fired.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio claims that he has been waiting for the Department of Justice (DOJ), at their request, to finish their investigation into whether the DOJ will file criminal civil rights charges against Pantaleo. Ultimately, it’s the NYPD commissioner’s decision to discipline or fire officers—and the commissioner works for the mayor. On July 16, 2018, the NYPD released a letter sent from its legal department to the DOJ, saying that the police department would proceed with disciplinary hearings if they did not hear from the government by the end of August. But in a statement sent to news outlets, the DOJ said it had given the city the green light to move forward on disciplinary charges back in the spring.

In a recent press conference with the mayor, police Commissioner James O’Neill said Lawrence Byrne, who was a deputy commissioner until the end of last month, “was not informed of that. This is something that we’ve been following very closely obviously for years. He’s had many discussions with DOJ and never at any point prior to a couple of weeks [ago] did they say it was OK to move forward.” On July 20, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s police oversight agency that can investigate NYPD misconduct claims, filed disciplinary charges against Pantaleo and will prosecute the case in a departmental trial.

For Eric Garner’s family, the letter (signed by Byrne) was nothing more than a political spectacle. “[The NYPD] letter and the Justice Department response shows that the excuse that de Blasio and the NYPD have been using for not holding officers accountable is just that: a political excuse,” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said in a statement released the next day. “In fact, DOJ’s response makes very clear that there is nothing stopping the NYPD from acting immediately to discipline officers and there’s no reason to wait until September, like NYPD’s letter laid out.” On July 25, Carr confronted de Blasio at a town hall in Staten Island and accused the de Blasio administration of blocking accountability and playing political games; she also asked him to discipline all the NYPD officers who were at the scene. Mayor de Blasio responded: “I respect the NYPD’s internal disciplinary process. There is due process; it is immediately beginning, we made that very clear.” He added that only two officers will face discipline: Pantaleo and Sgt. Kizzy Adonis.

Jennifer Laurin, a law professor at University of Texas who studies civil rights litigation, said the DOJ might have asked the  NYPD to delay the disciplinary hearings for legal reasons. Specifically, the DOJ most likely doesn’t want any previous witness statements to contradict their own (since that can result in witnesses being impeached). But Laurin noted: “The DOJ can’t compel the NYPD to not do an internal investigation,” and added that, “the time that the NYPD has now waited to conduct its own investigation obviously, itself, can complicate that investigation,” because the police may no longer be able to track down witnesses.

For police brutality activists and Eric Garner’s family members, four years is way too long for de Blasio to wait when he has the power to fire Daniel Pantaleo. And Pantaleo’s future disciplinary hearing does not absolve de Blasio of failing to hold all the officers at the scene accountable.

“Here’s the reality: in the past four years, Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD could have acted at any time to deliver real accountability for Eric Garner’s killing by firing the officers who murdered him, failed to provide aid or intervene, tried to cover it up, and engaged in related misconduct,” Loyda Colon, co-director of Justice Committee and a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, told The Appeal in an email. “But Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD have played games and used delay tactics every step of the way.” Colon called on de Blasio to stop the “blatant cover-up,” make Pantaleo and Adonis face disciplinary charges and then fire them immediately, and release the names of all the officers involved in Garner’s death.

“Mayor de Blasio has not lived up to his campaign promises of reforming the NYPD and making it more transparent and accountable to impacted communities,” Colon said. “Make no mistake: If he doesn’t make this right fast, his mayoral legacy will be tainted by his failure to hold police accountable, and the fact that a major NYPD cover-up of police misconduct in the killing of Garner happened on his watch.”

Proposed Pennsylvania Bill Would Force Patients With Chronic Pain Into A Treatment Agreement

A bill introduced in the state would require all chronic pain patients to enter into an agreement with their doctor before being prescribed opioid medication for the first time.

Women work in a recycling business operated by the American Rescue Workers in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a city that has experienced an epidemic of opioid use.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Proposed Pennsylvania Bill Would Force Patients With Chronic Pain Into A Treatment Agreement

A bill introduced in the state would require all chronic pain patients to enter into an agreement with their doctor before being prescribed opioid medication for the first time.

Proposed legislation in Pennsylvania could add more roadblocks to those seeking pain relief amid a widespread crackdowns on opioids, and even profoundly intrude into their private lives.

House Bill 2431, introduced by Representative Todd Stephens of Montgomery County, would require all chronic pain patients to enter into a treatment agreement with their doctor before being prescribed opioid medication for the first time.

Under the agreement, before opioid drugs are prescribed, patients would be required to undergo a urine screening to test for the presence of any illicit drugs. Patients would also be required to consent to regular urine screenings at their doctor’s discretion.

Stephens’s bill, which was referred to the Pennsylvania House’s Committee on Health in late May, would provide exceptions for cancer patients and for palliative care.

“Enacting public policies [like this] is necessary to address the Commonwealth’s opioid crisis and to protect the health, safety and welfare of affected citizens in Pennsylvania,” Stephens wrote in a co-sponsorship letter for his bill.

But there is little evidence that Stephens’s bill would mitigate the opioid crisis.

“This blowback is serving to deny [pain patients] the care that they need,” Terri Lewis, a professor of Rehabilitation Counseling at the National Teacher’s University of Changhua, told The Appeal.

Lewis said that the response to the opioid crisis has conflated patients who use pain medication for long-term treatment with those who have opioid use disorder.

She added that public policies that continue to impede chronic pain patients from receiving opioid medications can cut them off from treatments that “offer them a path to improved function.”

“It’s bad news all the way around,” she said.

In Oregon, meanwhile, there is a regulatory proposal that would eliminate the prescribing of all opioids to most chronic patients.

Pennsylvania already implemented prescription opioid supply-control policies, such as a drug monitoring program. The state’s former physician general, Carrie DeLone, warned that such policies would lead to an increase in overdose deaths attributed to heroin and other opiates as the supply of prescription opioids shrunk. Indeed, overdose deaths in the state nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016, according to the Pennsylvania Coroners Association.

The Stephens bill, however, targets only prescription opioids, which make up a small fraction of overdose deaths. In 2016, prescription opioids were detected in only 12 percent of fatal overdose victims in the state, according to the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association. The main drivers of overdose deaths are heroin and fentanyl, which were found in nearly half of all toxicology reports for fatal overdose victims in the state in 2016.

A recent study led by Stefan Kertesz, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Alabama,  found that reductions in prescription opioids have little impact on reducing overdose deaths.

The study’s authors called the outcomes of these supply-side policies “suboptimal,” noting “opioid prescriptions have fallen but harms to pain patients, and overdose deaths have risen.”

While evidence suggests Stephens’s bill will not reduce the number of overdose deaths in Pennsylvania, it could add a major boost to the growing industry of drug testing.

A 2017 report by Kaiser Health News found that spending on urine and genetic screenings quadrupled between 2010 and 2014 and now exceeds the total budget for the Environmental Protection Agency. The study analyzed Medicare and private insurance data and an estimated $8.5 billion was spent on these tests alone in 2014.

“I don’t know who wrote this bill, but the money being spent by various facets of industry that are trying to get their product positioned into the opioid crisis for monetizing things … it’s a heavy push,” says rehabilitation expert Lewis.  “And legislators are very vulnerable because they know nothing [about the opioid crisis].”

Stephens has insisted that his bill is based on 2016 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  guidelines for opioid prescribing. But in 2017, Pain News Network conducted a survey which asked chronic pain patients how their treatment has changed since the guidelines were put in place. More than 70 percent of respondents said their opiate prescriptions had been reduced or eliminated since the guidelines were released. Respondents also said their quality of life had also diminished; more than 80 percent said their pain had worsened, while 42 percent said they had contemplated suicide because their pain was so poorly managed. And nearly a quarter said they had begun hoarding opiate pills because they were uncertain that they would be able to obtain more from their doctor.

Nearly all of the respondents said the guidelines have been harmful to pain patients—an indication that the regulations in Stephens’s bill would deepen their suffering.


More in Explainers

A New Rhode Island Law Allows For Life Sentences in Drug Overdoses

Public health advocates are concerned that ‘Kristen's Law,’ meant to punish drug dealers, will criminalize users and fail to stem the opioid crisis.

The Rhode Island State Senate chamber, where 'Kristen's Law' was enacted in June.
Walter Bibikow/Getty

A New Rhode Island Law Allows For Life Sentences in Drug Overdoses

Public health advocates are concerned that ‘Kristen's Law,’ meant to punish drug dealers, will criminalize users and fail to stem the opioid crisis.

In 2014, 29-year-old Kristen Coutu of Rhode Island was found unresponsive in her car, dead from an overdose after using heroin laced with fentanyl. Aaron Andrade, the man who sold her the drugs, was later indicted for murder by the state attorney general, Peter Kilmartin. Last year he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Andrade’s sentencing was nearly unprecedented: only one other person in Rhode Island had ever been charged with murder for an overdose. Kilmartin insisted that Coutu’s case exposed the need to bolster existing laws to address cases where drugs sold to an individual result in death. Governor Gina Raimondo signed “Kristen’s Law” in late June after a tense debate among legislators over drug-induced homicide laws that generated resistance from people who use drugs, overdose-prevention advocates, and the medical community.

The law allows for life sentences for people who are convicted of selling illegal drugs that lead to fatal overdoses. It follows a trend of supply-side sentencing occurring across the country. According to statistics compiled by Vox reporter German Lopez, between 2011 and September 2017 at least sixteen states passed laws tightening criminal penalties for opioids; Rhode Island, however, joins Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Pennsylvania in enacting drug-induced homicide laws.  Rhode Island, however, joins Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, and Pennsylvania in enacting drug-induced homicide laws.

In part due to the (false) perception that only white people are overdose victims, lawmakers around the country are responding to the opioid crisis by crafting bills that go after dealers who “prey” on victims. But these laws end up targeting people who use drugs; journalists such as Slate’s Daniel Denvir and The Appeal’s Joshua Vaughn have reported on Pennsylvania cases where drug users faced homicide charges because they  passed illicit substances to friends who later died.  

Proponents of Kristen’s Law insist that it will not harm people who use drugs, pointing to provisions in the law that only criminalize drug deliveries that exchange drugs “for anything of value.” They say that the legislation ensures that sharing drugs among friends is not criminalized. They also argue that Kristen’s Law enshrines Good Samaritan protections by granting immunity to those who call emergency services for a person experiencing an overdose. Although Governor Raimondo may believe that this legislation is well-intentioned in combating the overdose epidemic and responding to great harm experienced by family members who have lost loved ones in Rhode Island, many public health professionals condemn this law and call for it to be reversed. 

Despite its claim to not target drug users and codification of the Good Samaritan clauses, Kristen’s Law could harm users by providing yet another reason to not call 911 in the event of an overdose. In a 2002 study outlined in the Journal of Addictive Diseases, 75 percent of respondents who witnessed an overdose cited concerns about police involvement as a reason they delayed calling 911. In Vermont, which also has enshrined Good Samaritan Law protections––the state’s health department reported that fewer than 40 percent of people who requested a refill of the life-saving drug naloxone reported calling 911 in the aftermath of an overdose. A Harm Reduction Journal study conducted in Rhode Island in 2015 demonstrated that while most respondents said  they would call 911 in the event of an overdose, fewer than half (45 percent) were aware of the state’s Good Samaritan laws. Even if Good Samaritan laws exist in theory, that does not always mean responding officers will respect that promise in practice.

Many drug users have had negative interactions with the police that foster distrust of law enforcement and by extension, emergency services. Kristen’s Law, then, may make people more afraid to call emergency services; if the police show up, who’s to say they won’t consider a user to be a dealer?

Governor Raimondo says this law will target high-level dealers by “piercing the buffer that high-level dealers establish between themselves and users on the street.” This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how drug networks work. In a 2009 study from the American Journal of Community Psychology, its authors used agent-based modelling to explore a heroin market during the 1990s. They noted that cartels sat at the top of the market structure, but that a significant portion of activity in more localized markets operated outside “organized” frameworks. They noted that “dealers” and “distributors” were independent business people, and that larger suppliers had little influence on dealing. Using these dealers as pawns to go after kingpins will only subject them to prosecutorial overreach in attempt to get access to information that these low-level dealers may not be privy to.

And some dealers use drugs themselves. According to a Journal of Psychoactive Drugs  study conducted in Vancouver, 17 percent of users admitted to dealing drugs prior to the interviews. They noted while that these were typically low-level dealers, they have the most visible roles in the drug-dealing hierarchy.

Not everyone who provides drugs to people in exchange for money is a dealer; there are many people who may buy drugs on behalf of friends. Lee Hoffer, an anthropologist at Case Western University refers to these individuals as “brokers.” But the vague language in Kristen’s Law criminalizes any sharing of drugs that includes an exchange of goods of any sort, not just money. It could be food, a voucher, or a place to stay for the night.

Treating overdose as a homicide implies that there is intent to kill. It implies that people purposely give others drugs laced with fentanyl they know will lead to death. But according to a 2017 study of illicit opioid users in Rhode Island, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, many reported that they did not prefer fentanyl and that they often could not identify it in their drugs. Despite this, 50 percent of drug users reported that they were exposed to fentanyl in the past year. This means that many of the people sharing and distributing drugs are unlikely to know that there is fentanyl in their supply.

Criminalization will most likely have a profound racially disparate impact. According to the ACLU of Rhode Island, the state’s Black residents are three times more likely than white residents to be arrested for drug possession. This disparity is reflected in Rhode Island’s prison population. Although Black people make up 8.2 percent of the state population and Hispanic people 15.5 percent (as of 2010), they make up 30 percent and 25.4 percent of the prison population. Following national patterns where Black men in particular get longer sentences than white men, it is likely that this trend could be repeated in Rhode Island.

There are also the adverse health outcomes associated with incarceration. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, for those who have been incarcerated, the risk of death is 12.7 times higher than the general population within two weeks after release, with overdose from illicit drugs as a leading cause. Researchers have found that incarceration strains social support networks, and those recently released are as a result especially vulnerable to relapse and overdose.

Rhode Island has taken positive steps to address the opioid crisis, including the formation of a public health-driven task force to deal with the issue. The state has also championed the expansion of medication-assisted treatment for those with opioid use disorder as well as easy access to life-saving naloxone, and developed timely tracking of progress in ending the epidemic through Prevent Overdose, RI .  However, what Rhode Island law enforcement officials and legislators alike fail to understand is that a public health approach to the opioid crisis cannot include a criminal justice response. Such a carceral response significantly reduces the efficacy of any public health approach, which necessitates the absence of a criminal justice component. Whenever an overdose occurs, it is tragedy that tears at the fabric of our communities, but we must understand that the crisis was caused by decades of failed drug policy, not by drug dealers lurking on a street corner. Instead of enacting punitive and likely to be ineffective legislation like Kristen’s Law, we must seriously pursue decriminalization and harm reduction—both Portugal and Canada have lessons they can teach us in this regard—otherwise we risk exacerbating what is already a dire public health crisis.

More in Podcasts