On July 17, 2014, New York City Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo grabbed Eric Garner, wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck and—even though the NYPD banned the use of choke holds in 1993—squeezed. When Garner muttered, “I can’t breathe,” Pantaleo still squeezed. Pantaleo continued to press Garner’s face into the sidewalk as the victim repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
Then Eric Garner died.
The viral video of the encounter sparked protests across the country and still stands as one of the most egregious cases of police brutality. A grand jury would eventually decide not to indict Pantaleo—instead the city of New York gave him a pay raise, upping his salary to six figures.
Before the Garner incident, Pantaleo had been sued three times for falsely arresting black men. In each case, the charges against the men were dismissed, and in one case, a cash settlement was reached. On March 21, ThinkProgress released documents leaked by an anonymous member of the Civilian Complaint Review Board showing that Pantaleo had 14 individual allegations filed against him and seven disciplinary complaints, four of which were substantiated by investigators.
The NYPD uses CCRB as an “impartial agency that has been independent of the police department since 1993” to review civilian complaints against police. It is composed of nonpolice investigators who conduct investigations in cases of unnecessary or excessive force, abuse of authority or discourtesy. In theory, it is more effective to have people outside the police department oversee these kinds of allegations.
Yet the newly uncovered documents reveal that Pantaleo was repeatedly disciplined for abusing his power as a police officer. In June 2012, Pantaleo and his partner stopped a man “they might have seen in the past” and stopped, frisked and searched the suspect. Finding nothing, they moved on their way. After the man filed a complaint to the CCRB for violating his constitutional rights, the board found the officers guilty of making an “unauthorized stop without lawful authority,” and recommended punishment for Pantaleo on March 18, 2014—four months before his encounter with Garner.
The NYPD allowed him to work for over a year without discipline before it finally handed down its penalty on March 11, 2015. His punishment? Loss of two days’ vacation time.
Eric Garner had been dead 237 days.
in 2011 Pantaleo was charged with hitting someone with an inanimate object. In 2009 he refused to get medical help for someone. He was repeatedly accused of abusive vehicle stops. After one traffic stop in which he was found guilty of abuse by the CCRB, he received another tap on the wrist: instruction.
Pantaleo had 18 allegations of some sort of abuse or misconduct in 14 separate incidents before his encounter with Garner, yet he was given a gun and a badge and shoved onto the streets of New York City to “protect and serve” every day. In a force as big as the NYPD, it might be difficult to monitor the files of every cop in every precinct, but these documents reveal that an officer with a documented history of abusive behavior who repeatedly acted above and outside the law went unpunished or unchecked for years.
There is probably someone in the maze of hierarchy inside the NYPD who read the 10th complaint against Daniel Pantaleo and decided to send him back on patrol. When that same person read the 11th accusation of abuse against Pantaleo, that person still let him work as a police officer. Obviously the 12th was no problem, and neither was the 13th or 14th. After the NYPD sent an officer back on the streets who had been charged with abuse 14 times, when it heard that Pantaleo had killed a man, the department’s only reasonable response must have been:
“Seems about right.”