The Rev. Fred Davie is chair of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board and executive vice president of Union Theological Seminary.
After five long years, the Eric Garner case came to a resolution last month: New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo was fired from his job. Pantaleo had been recorded on video using a chokehold while arresting Garner, who gasped, shortly before he died, “I can’t breathe.” The incident stirred wide outrage over police violence against African Americans.
An important aspect of the case was the essential role played by New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, which I chair. I hope that our experience on the board in the Garner case will prompt cities across the country to consider the value of civilian oversight of police.
It was New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board — the nation’s largest independent all-civilian police oversight agency — that received the complaint that ultimately led to Pantaleo’s termination. Responding to a bona fide complaint and a subsequent investigation, the board’s attorneys prosecuted Pantaleo at an administrative trial last spring. His firing was an affirmation of the trial’s verdict. He will never again patrol New York’s streets, nor will he receive a taxpayer-funded pension.
That outcome was possible because New York has an administrative trial process built into its system of police discipline, meaning that criminal and civil trials are not the only options available for addressing misbehavior. In addition to considering avenues available via the judiciary, the board asks one more question: Has an officer adhered to regulations of the NYPD Patrol Guide when enforcing the law?
The entire world saw the video of Pantaleo wrap his arm around Garner’s neck in a prohibited maneuver called a chokehold. (Pantaleo denied that it was a chokehold, but others in the police department testified that it was.) The chokehold set off what the medical examiner described at trial as a “lethal cascade” of events, complicated by Garner’s asthma and hypertension. He died on July 17, 2014.
Despite the medical examiner’s ruling that Garner’s death was a homicide, a grand jury later that year declined to indict Pantaleo. Then the Justice Department waited until July 16 this year — the eve of the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death — before announcing that it would not charge Pantaleo. But one option still remained.
The administrative disciplinary trial had begun in May. Over the course of nearly a month, the Civilian Complaint Review Board’s prosecutors presented video footage, autopsy photos and expert witness testimony making it clear that Pantaleo engaged in misconduct. Unlike the grand jury and Justice Department processes, the administrative trial was public. Information previously unknown to all but a few was suddenly accessible to the whole world.
During the trial, the public learned that a police lieutenant, Christopher Bannon, sent a text moments after Garner’s death saying it was “not a big deal.” The public also learned that Pantaleo’s partner, Justin D’Amico, testified that they had parked their patrol car 300 feet away from where Garner stood on a Staten Island sidewalk, yet they had witnessed his selling loose cigarettes.
Without an independent agency tasked with presenting evidence at trial, that information — essential facts about how NYPD officers interacted with Garner — would have been omitted from the public record.
The Pantaleo trial may be over, but New York and the cities across the country that followed the trial with interest can’t afford to let the focus get away from civilian oversight of police. Holding law enforcement officers accountable and working toward better policing requires everyone to pay attention and speak up when appropriate.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board has been an all-civilian organization independent of the New York Police Department since 1993, and it investigates several thousand complaints annually, leading to the disciplining of thousands of police officers. I’ll be the first to admit that the complaint review process is not perfect. We on the board advocate for improvements — such as granting CCRB investigators direct, unimpeded access to officers’ body-worn camera footage — and we encourage New Yorkers to reach out to their City Council representatives to do the same. But the Eric Garner case, with the methodical, deliberate process culminating in the dismissal of Daniel Pantaleo from the NYPD, provides vivid evidence that civilian oversight of police works.