Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner in an infamous police brutality episode, has finally been fired.

It took five years.

He applied a fatal choke hold in violation of policy. It happened in broad daylight, it was captured on camera, and it was seen on YouTube by hundreds of thousands of people. The Pope didn’t affirm the truth of it before the Supreme Court, but other than that, what more was needed? Yet it still it took five years to hold him accountable. That’s a fifth of a career that would qualify him for a pension. No criminal charges were brought. He drew a salary of $85,000 during the wend through the legal labyrinth.

The tragedy cost the taxpayers six million dollars just in civil penalties (God alone knows how much all the lawyering costs). The sum is about the same the EMS budget increase needed to address increasing response times. A delayed ambulance response was, ironically, a factor in Garner’s death.

The episode shows a mismatch between liability and accountability. Normally, such high risk brings high accountability, which would need to be compensated. High accountability would bring the expectation of wisdom and judgement. The salary of an NYPD officer does not allow for such, while union protections (5 years worth) derails accountability, increasing risk. This is why New York City spends more on its tort fund than on homeless programs, transportation, education, or the EMS system that might have saved the city the tragedy.

The Garner arrest should be a textbook study of police judgement that can only be described as idiotic. Wisdom that can only be described as completely lacking. Garner died because arresting a man that obese and unhealthy is a dangerous thing to do. Judgement should realize that there is a science to safely rendering someone pain compliant: it’s called anesthesiology. Any anesthesiologist would eyeball Garner and know that anesthetizing him would be risky. Obese patients carry double the risk of airway complications under general anesthesia. Obese or not, asthmatic or not, Garner was killed by excessive force to his trachea. The trachea is a thin curtain of cartilage, easily fractured. It can be cracked open with the twist of a thin scalpel blade. Often, to fracture it is to kink it off like folding a coffee straw. Now imagine hauling a huge man down by twisting that little curtain.

But there’s more to the failure if we use the simple wisdom and judgement test: there is no procedure for not arresting a man who represents a threat to society best described as “pesky,” if at all. That Garner was arrested dozens of times without incident is just more evidence of chronic misjudgment in applying an extreme tool, arrest and denial of freedom, to a trivial problem.

Time after time we have seen bad police judgement used in shootings, and arrests where a jury refuses to indict officers criminally, because “losing your shit” under pressure cannot be made a criminal act. But the system cannot decide the basic point of whether they make suitable police. Officer Pantaleo was never suitable to be a police officer. He should have been gone before he killed someone, as evidenced by his record.

But we can’t say that he should have been gone before he killed someone, if getting him gone is also fraught with the risk of expensive liability. My bet was that more than one of his commanders puzzled for a way to neutralize such an obvious loose canon (like putting him on a ridiculous cigarette hunting task force). But we can’t reasonably expect to get him gone before he kills someone, if getting him gone took five years, and the pressure of hundreds of thousands of YouTube viewers after he killed someone.

The police procedure manual runs over two thousand pages. We need a manual that vast because the police can’t fire someone merely for being a dumb-ass idiot. Still : an Officer can violate a procedure that’s not in the least bit arcane (“don’t throttle your prisoner), and it takes a fifth of a generation to get rid of him, while in the meantime he takes $510,000 from the public till. And a budget increase needed to address dangerous ambulance delays gets completely sucked up in the bargain.

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t, heads lawyers win, tails taxpayers lose system. And with all that expense and procedure wending we still can’t bridge the gulf between risk and accountability. If the same thing happens tomorrow, we’d have the same deja vu of today.

This makes the episode is as much an indictment of our legal system as it is an indictment of Officer Pantaleo.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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