It has been two months since NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Staten Island resident Eric Garner with a maneuver that has been variously described and repudiated as a chokehold. In that time, there has been a lot of discussion concerning the efficacy of broken windows policy, the controversial policing doctrine, espoused and perfected by current NYPD Police Commissioner William Bratton, that treats petty infractions as the seeds of more serious crime.
Critics of the policy argue that it’s an overly-broad theory that can lead the city down a slippery slope of surveillance, and/or be used to justify historically-prejudiced methods like stop-and-frisk. Officers trained to treat any mild disobedience, such as the failure to comply, as justification for escalating force are blinkered by that empowerment. In the worst-case scenario, that can lead to a literal life-and-death situation; ask the families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
Officer Pantaleo is unique only because the excessive force he felt compelled to use directly killed a man; that worst-case scenario materialized due to his actions, and I’m sure he feels horrible. In all other ways, he is the poster-cop for broken windows policing. Pantaleo was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and he did the wrong thing, but at every step of the way, his actions were rational in context. It’s the context that needs changing.
Pantaleo’s actions were also consistent with his career on the force. This morning, WNYC published the results of an investigation into officer Pantaleo’s police work, and it is not pretty: of the 259 criminal court cases since 2007 in which he was the arresting officer, 24 were for felonies; the vast majority of the rest were for low-level crimes like trespassing and marijuana possession. “Far from being a rogue cop,” WNYC reporter Robert Lewis writes, “the records show Pantaleo embraced the broken windows theory of policing, which has become the hallmark of the 21st century New York Police Department.” John Eterno, a former NYPD captain who runs the graduate criminal justice program at Long Island’s Molloy College, told WNYC that Pantaleo’s pattern of arrests is consistent with “policing by the numbers.”
“This is what the NYPD does,” he added. “This is their mainstay. This is their style of policing, at least for the last 12 years. And [for] most officers that are on the NYPD, this is the style of policing that they’re familiar with. They know nothing else.”
Furthermore, court records show that Pantaleo has been the subject of civilian complaints on Staten Island, and has been sued twice in federal court for civil rights violations—although the latter figure shouldn’t raise alarm, because other officers in the precinct have been “sued far more frequently.”
Later this month, a Staten Island grand jury will consider criminal charges against Pantaleo. But he is only partially to blame. Broken windows policy needs fixing, and if this case isn’t the catalyst for that change, what will be?
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.