“Fire Pantaleo!” the crowd chanted. “Fire Kizzy Adonis!”
At an August 14 rally on the steps of City Hall, a crowd of advocates and elected officials called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to take what they said was long overdue action against police officer misconduct. Daniel Pantaleo is, of course, the officer who used a banned chokehold while arresting Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014, leading to Garner’s death. He was on desk duty for five years before recently being suspended after facing a disciplinary trial in which an NYPD administrative judge recommended he be terminated.
On Monday, O’Neill announced at a news conference at 1 Police Plaza that he agreed with the judge’s recommendation and dismissed Pantaleo from the force. “It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer,” he said. “In carrying out the court’s verdict in this case, I take no pleasure. I know that many will disagree with this decision, and that is their right. There are absolutely no victors here today – not the Garner family, not the community at-large, and certainly not the courageous men and women of this police department, who put their own lives on the line every single day in service to the people of this great city.”
The far less well-known Sergeant Adonis was Pantaleo’s supervising officer when the Garner incident took place, and she has not faced a disciplinary trial, despite being served with internal disciplinary charges by the NYPD in January 2016. O’Neill said the trial would be scheduled “soon” and would take place this year. The other officers involved in Garner’s arrest, including Justin D'Amico, who filed an inflated felony charge against Garner after his death, have not faced any discipline at all. On August 21, Adonis pleaded guilty to the department charges and was docked 20 vacation days, which means a trial will no longer take place.
For five years, the Garner case and the de Blasio administration’s response to it has tested the relationship between communities of color and the mayor’s NYPD, a relationship that de Blasio promised to repair when he first ran for mayor in 2013 -- and one he insists is significantly improved despite what happened to Eric Garner and in other cases where officers have killed unarmed civilians. But the mayor remains adherent to the “broken windows” approach to policing, focused on so-called low-level, quality-of-life offenses in order to prevent disorder and more serious crime. Critics say it mainly leads to over-policing of communities of color and disproportionate enforcement based on race, while de Blasio says he’s overseen a new, evolved iteration of broken windows that is more fair but still helps keep the city safe.
”I know that the NYPD of today is a different institution than it was just a few years ago,” de Blasio said at a news conference on Monday, responding to Pantaleo’s termination. “I know the NYPD has changed profoundly. I know that members of the NYPD learned the lessons of this tragedy. They acted on it, they did something about it. It is a beginning, but we have a lot more to do and the change has to get deeper and deeper.”
But has policing really changed markedly since de Blasio took the reigns of City Hall promising reform and healing? As de Blasio has faced intense scrutiny over the city’s handling of the Garner incident, particularly Pantaleo’s fate -- including on the presidential debate stage -- does that case exemplify broader problems that persist, or are it and others like it exceptions to the rule?
Is there really an argument to be made that day-to-day policing has changed significantly to help bring communities of color and the police department closer together despite some high-profile tragedies?
Under de Blasio’s five-and-a-half-year tenure, policing and the criminal justice system in New York City have undoubtedly changed. Some key data points paint a clear picture. But to many advocates and critics, the mayor has fallen far short of his lofty pledges and boasts of reform; and other data points undermine de Blasio’s claims.
Arrests, summonses, stop-and-frisks, and complaints of officer misconduct are all trending downward, meaning fewer and less punitive interactions between police officers and New Yorkers.
But any of the progress that may indicate is often juxtaposed, and for some completely undermined, by disproportionate racial impacts and repeated and public instances of flagrant violations by officers that seem to go unpunished, sending the signal that while officers enforce the law, they themselves are above it.
“There were multiple officers involved in murdering Eric Garner and there were multiple officers involved in trying to cover it up,” said Yul-san Liem, co-director of the Justice Committee at Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition group, at the August 14 rally. “And all of those officers represent a threat to public safety. Mayor de Blasio, if any of those officers are not held accountable, you have not done your job, and you cannot speak Eric Garner's name without hanging your head in shame.”
But de Blasio regularly invokes Eric Garner’s name, citing his death as a turning point for the department’s efforts towards true accountability. He said as much on Monday at City Hall.
“When you look at everything that has happened, literally from just days after this tragedy until today, the retraining of this entire police force – retraining 36,000 officers regularly to deescalate so that exact incident would not happen again; the implicit bias training, because we're all humans with biases and it needs to be weeded out and the only way to do that is to help people understand those biases so they can act on them. The body cameras – if you go back to that day in 2014 none of those things were here. It's a very different department.”
Numbers vs Sentiments
“Anyone who says that everything we’ve been doing for five years to stop another tragedy doesn’t matter, I think they absolutely do not understand the needs of the people of our city who have told me repeatedly that policing has changed,” de Blasio said in a recent appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall with host Errol Louis. The mayor had just come off a debate appearance in the Democratic presidential race, where protestors heckled him on live television and called for Pantaleo’s firing.
“I’ve talked to people in communities all over New York City. They say their lives are different because their children are not being stopped. I’ve talked to young men of color who say their lives are different because they’re not being stopped. And folks who say their relationship with police is profoundly different because we retrained every police officer after that tragedy of Eric Garner, and we did not just stand idly by,” de Blasio continued. “We retrained every police officer to change the nature of policing and policing is different today in New York City. So I’m not caught up in the words of a few activists. I care about 8.6 million people and their lives have to change. And we’ve devoted ourselves to making sure it is a very different world than the one it was five years ago.”
It’s true that on the metrics, the NYPD is no longer defined by the unconstitutional practice of stop-and-frisk policing that peaked during the Bloomberg era. Stops fell from a high of 685,724 in 2011 to 11,008 in 2018, according to NYPD data.
De Blasio has repeatedly said his administration “ended” the practice but the number of stops had already dropped dramatically in Bloomberg’s last years in office and has continued to decrease under de Blasio, though it has not been completely eliminated. Advocates and experts point out that stops still disproportionately affect people of color and note that de Blasio can hardly take credit for what was accomplished through concerted activism, public pressure, and litigation (even if he was part of the chorus before being elected mayor). They also point to repeated reports by a federal court-appointed monitor with oversight of the NYPD that have noted that officers were undercounting street stops.
On arrests and summonses, too, the city has shown significant shifts under de Blasio, part of the picture he paints when arguing that he’s a police reformer.
In 2018, there were a total of 246,781 arrests, down from 388,368 in 2013.
In 2018, there were a total of 89,908 criminal summonses (which mean a written citation and court date but not a trip to jail) issued, down from 424,883 in 2013. (There have been 44,382 issued through June 30 this year.)
In 2018, the NYPD handed out 54,774 civil summonses for low-level offenses that often can be dealt with as criminal or civil violations, and the city has moved toward civil based on legislation passed by the City Council in 2016. (In the first six months of 2019, only 14,908 civil summonses were issued, compared with 26,782 over the same time last year.)
All this, while most major felony crimes, including murder, have dropped during de Blasio’s tenure, continuing a decades-long trend in New York City.
Use of guns by NYPD officers appears to be down. In 2017, the latest year of data available from the NYPD, there were 52 firearms discharge incidents, down from 81 in 2013; 19 individuals were shot and injured or killed by officers in 2017, down from 25 in 2013; and total shots fired were 242, down from 248. (The NYPD now tracks all uses of force – earlier, only firearm discharges were tracked.)
The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a quasi-independent agency of mostly mayoral appointees that monitors and investigates complaints of police misconduct and abuse of power, received 4,745 complaints within its jurisdiction in 2018, down from 5,410 in 2013. And that decrease comes amid a heightened environment around police misconduct, in part spurred by incidents like Garner’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more. (Through July of this year, the Board received 3,377 complaints.)
In February, the NYPD completed the initial rollout of its body camera program to roughly 20,000 members of the force, with an additional 4,000 set to be given to specialized units by this month. While the cameras are said to increase transparency and accountability for officers, there are major questions around the rules for how footage is released and used.
Under O’Neill, the NYPD’s focus has been to rebuild trust through neighborhood policing, a program that assigns officers to regularly patrol specific sectors within precincts to grow familiarity with community members. Officers also participate in community meetings to hear directly from locals about the issues affecting their neighborhoods. The program has been rolled out in all precincts citywide.
“Policing in New York has never been more fair or effective,” said Alfred Baker, an NYPD spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Officers on the ground are building foundations of trust within our neighborhoods while department leaders are working to meet ever higher standards of accountability. Today, the NYPD continues to drive down crime and serve as a national model for the idea that safety is a shared responsibility and that the police and the community must work together to ensure people are safe and that they feel safe. But our important work continues, as our collective vision for sustained success on all fronts evolves.”
Alongside neighborhood policing, the department has also committed to what it calls “precision policing,” tracking crime patterns and troubled neighborhoods where they can send additional resources and personnel, and focusing on gangs, crews, hot-spots, and individuals known to be repeat offenders. That, O’Neill argues, allows the department to target the most serious drivers of crime and the few thousand individuals who commit most of the city’s violent crime, instead of stopping and frisking tens or hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Latino young men.
O’Neill has repeatedly touted the success of precision policing of crime hotspots and gangs, as well as the neighborhood policing program, which he has said has led to a paradigm shift in how cops interact with communities, something de Blasio has made a mantra.
Following the announcement of the NYPD judge’s decision in the Pantaleo case on August 2, de Blasio reiterated the point at a news conference at City Hall.
“For the last five years, our mission has been to fundamentally change the nature of policing in New York City,” he said. “After the death of Eric Garner, everything was reevaluated. The entire police force was retrained – 36,000 officers retrained to deescalate conflict, to understand the implicit bias that we all carry with us, to ensure it would not interfere with their duty. The approach to the community is entirely different today – and we had to weed out the distance and the separation that was the norm of the past, and, through neighborhood policing, actually create a dynamic where our officers and community members got to know each other as human beings, where people felt they were on the same side, working toward a common goal.”
But neither the mayor nor the commissioner have offered proof that sentiments are changing on the ground, and there is only corollary evidence that neighborhood policing is having any impact on crime. A long promised survey of communities has yet to be released – in May O’Neill said the surveys were ongoing. A separate study of the program by the RAND Corporation began in 2018 and will only be fully completed by mid-2021 for public release. The NYPD is meant to receive preliminary findings from that study this year.
A March 2018 Quinnipiac University poll showed that 52% of voters approved of de Blasio's handling of the Police Department, while 37% disapproved. Across racial lines, that approval varied – 61% of black residents gave their approval, while only 50% of white residents and 48% of Hispanic residents felt the same. An earlier poll, from July 2017, showed that only 41% of New Yorkers approved of the way de Blasio was handling police-community relations, and 52% disapproved. Again there were racial differences – approval was 55% among black New Yorkers, 34% for white voters, and 39% for Hispanic voters.
“The mayor is more concerned with public relations and talking points,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, in a recent phone interview. “Even the conversation around quote-unquote neighborhood policing, much of it is really a hugely funded PR game right now. The fact that there's something called neighborhood policing, or the fact that there are some officers called NCOs [neighborhood coordination officers] is not equivalent to fundamental change or improvement in policing. And there's no evidence that they're pointing to that that [improvement] exists.”
Advocates don't seem to want to give an inch in acknowledging the areas where there appears to be progress toward goals shared with de Blasio. Some like Kang argue that the issues with the department are more ingrained, and that the lack of accountability encourages a culture of abuse of power that cannot be checked through simply retraining officers. They say that the NYPD needs to end broken windows policing entirely, that police should not be the solution to community issues, and that a focus on socioeconomic factors would more greatly contribute to both safety and increased trust.
Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, and a prominent critic of broken windows policing, said the two metrics for improved policing are the number of punitive interactions between police and the public and the level of abuse during those interactions.
On the first, the administration has shown much success. “Stop-and-frisk encounters are of course down astronomically, misdemeanor arrests are down, overall arrests are down. So those are very real positive metrics,” he said.
On the second metric, Vitale said, the results are more mixed. “We continue to see a lot of very abusive interactions between police and the public,” he said. “The videos continue to show not so much that people are getting killed [like] Eric Garner, but just tons of videos that show police needlessly escalating because they're being driven by this idea that if they don't show that they are the superior force in every interaction, that somehow civilization will become unglued.”
He pointed to the recent incidents where officers were being doused with water in the streets and chose not to make any arrests. “The department's policy response was to go out and get these people, to use force to arrest them, and to ramp up the idea that what's important here is police authority. So that when push came to shove, any idea about neighborhood policing or de-escalation went right out the window,” Vitale said.
He had particular criticism for the mayor’s talking points on retraining officers. “All this talk about training is smoking mirrors. This is political cover and it's made absolutely no difference,” Vitale argued. He had five concrete suggestions to improve the state of affairs: “getting the police out of the mental health business,” decriminalizing sex work, aggressive support for marijuana legalization, getting police out of schools, and dialing back on gang policing.
If the advocates believe the mayor has let the NYPD run roughshod, there are also those who believe he’s completely stifled the police force. Republican elected officials and the uniformed unions say the mayor is anti-NYPD, and accuse him of kowtowing to the demands of advocates. “I think folks in media and advocates tend to focus on statistics that justify the narrative they want,” said City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, in an interview outside City Council chambers. “When you look at the number of confrontational shootings the NYPD does compared to other major city departments, it's actually astounding how reserved and professional our police officers are, and they get no credit for that whatsoever. And the left wants to paint them as these jackbooted oppressors.”
“What more level of accountability could there be when there are already five or six agencies and offices that an individual officer must be accountable to?,” Borelli asked rhetorically.
The mayor and the police commissioner have been similarly and repeatedly criticized by Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents 24,000 rank-and-file police officers. Following the Pantaleo decision, Lynch said in a statement, “With this decision, Commissioner O’Neill has opened the door for politicians to dictate the outcome of every single NYPD disciplinary proceeding, without any regard for the facts of the case or police officers’ due process rights. He will wake up tomorrow to discover that the cop-haters are still not satisfied, but it will be too late. The damage is already done. The NYPD will remain rudderless and frozen, and Commissioner O’Neill will never be able to bring it back.”
A failure of accountability and transparency
For advocates and elected officials, however, there’s a disconnect between some of the data and the community efforts and what they see as an almost complete lack of accountability for erring officers. “I think they've done a relatively good job at trying to build those bridges back and really trying to intimately get into communities to know people,” said Queens City Council Member Donovan Richards, a Democrat and chair of the public safety committee, in an interview at City Hall. “Where the failure has come has come on accountability, and transparency and accountability are still the areas that they struggle on.”
Richards cited, for instance, the NYPD’s facial recognition, DNA, and gang databases, which sweep thousands of New Yorkers into the system, seemingly in violation of their civil rights. And of course, the death of Eric Garner.
“Those are all glaring failures that I feel are undermining all of the progress they’re really trying to make in other places. You look at the Garner case, it's just a shining example of how far we have to go to make sure that the department is truly holding people accountable,” said Richards, who has been among those saying de Blasio should have moved to see Pantaleo fired long ago.
In all, he said the mayor’s record has been a “mixed bag,” which has only served to increase mistrust with the public. “You can't train people or legislate common decency. You can't train and legislate people to not pull babies apart from their moms in a dangerous fashion. I mean, how do you legislate somebody not to choke somebody to death over a low-level offense?”
The NYPD has indeed taken steps to improve its disciplinary practices, though it is unclear what impact they will have. In February, O’Neill announced the department would implement the reform recommendations of an independent blue ribbon panel – put together after a Buzzfeed News investigation last year showed hundreds of NYPD employees kept their jobs despite committing acts that should have led to termination – which included speeding up disciplinary adjudications, studying the creation of a disciplinary matrix, more strongly enforcing action against offices who make false statements, and greater transparency, among other measures.
And after the Justice Department announced that it would not file federal charges against Officer Pantaleo, the mayor said the city would never again wait to act on police misconduct while federal investigators make decisions in such cases.
Some police reform advocates take a much harsher view of the mayor’s efforts. For one, they point out that arrests have been falling because of changes in laws and policies that the mayor and commissioner have repeatedly resisted in many cases.
There is the Criminal Justice Reform Act, spearheaded by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and passed by the Council in 2016, which created civil penalties for several low-level criminal offenses, and the Right to Know Act, which mandates that officers provide identification during street stops and let suspects know that they can refuse a stop when there is no evidence leading the officers to presume a crime may be about to happen or recently happened. In both cases, the mayor and police department had to be cajoled to support a version of the legislation that could feasibly pass the Council floor and not be vetoed by the mayor.
More recently, when the 2019 Charter Revision Commission was considering a proposal to strengthen the CCRB, the mayor’s office worked behind the scenes unsuccessfully to prevent the measure from making it onto the November general election ballot.
“What we've seen is police accountability and transparency going backwards under de Blasio in multiple areas,” said Kang. She cited the many “egregious cases” of police misconduct, many of them caught on tape or revealed in the press, that have gone unpunished. That serves to discourage New Yorkers from filing complaints against cops, she said, both for fear of retaliation or concern that their complaints will go nowhere. “The message is sent to New Yorkers is that the department and the mayor are not going to take police who harm people, they're not going to take that seriously,” she said. “They're not going to discipline officers, they’re not going to fire officers, they’re not going to protect New Yorkers from officers who are abusive.”
Kang also criticized how opaque the de Blasio administration has been with regards to police discipline, referring to Section 50-a of the State Civil Rights code, which shields officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure. Prior to the de Blasio administration, limited disciplinary records were made available to the public and members of the press. But under him, the department reinterpreted it – arguing that they had inadvertently been breaking the law for decades – and closed what was a very small window into officer misconduct allegations.
De Blasio and O’Neill subsequently said they wanted the state law changed to allow more disclosure, but they do not appear to have made a serious push on the issue and nothing passed during this year’s legislative session in Albany. Notably though, the NYPD no longer invokes 50-a to keep body camera footage secret.
“[T]he expansion and manipulation of the state police secrecy law 50-a to really protect abuse of officers, hide police misconduct, hide trends of lack of discipline when cops do abuse or brutalize or sexually assault and harm New Yorkers is a huge issue. And the De Blasio administration has actually been worse than prior administrations, including Republican administrations in terms of the level of secrecy around this,” Kang said.
There are, of course, other practices that have rankled critics. The NYPD’s crackdown on fare evasion, which effectively criminalizes poverty, and on e-bikes, which disproportionately hurts delivery workers who tend to be immigrants (many of them undocumented) of color.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, in an interview at City Hall, gave the mayor credit for improved metrics: more safety while reducing arrests, summonses, and use of force. “But when it comes to accountability and transparency, we might be worse at this moment in time,” he said. “He ran on the backs of these stories of black and brown families, and to be having to fight certain fights is nonsensical...There are some conversations that are way too difficult than it should be for a mayor who ran on these issues.”
Chris Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a phone interview, that for de Blasio, “Maybe the two big opposite ends of the spectrum are stop-and-frisk on one hand, and police officer discipline and accountability on the other.”
Dunn did not credit the mayor entirely for the reduction in stop-and-frisk, which, as Kang and others noted, was largely because of litigation initiated by advocates, which led a judge to rule that the NYPD had used the practice unconstitutionally by virtually indiscriminately stopping so many young men of color. But, Dunn said, “The mayor deserves a lot of criticism for his role in perpetuating a system where there's no transparency or accountability when it comes to police misconduct...He has not been a leader here in the city when it comes to police reform. Now, there are circumstances or instances in which he has gone along or been pulled along. But I don't think there are areas where he's actually led a reform initiative.”