A WNYC analysis of court records shows that except for the tragic outcome, the arrest of Eric Garner would have been a routine affair for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, an officer who spent his career aggressively policing minor crimes in a lower income, largely minority area.
Far from being a rogue cop, the records show Pantaleo embraced the broken windows theory of policing, which has become the hallmark of the 21st century New York Police Department. The strategy is based on the notion that stopping low-level offenses prevents more serious crime.
Out of 259 criminal court cases since 2007 where Pantaleo was the arresting officer, most were for misdemeanors such as marijuana possession and trespassing. There were felony charges in 24 cases. Two-thirds of Pantaleo’s cases that made it to court ended with a dismissal or a guilty plea to a disorderly conduct violation — which is a little more serious than a speeding ticket. He is one of the most active cops on Staten Island.
“It’s clear that he’s policing by the numbers,” said John Eterno, a former NYPD captain who now runs the graduate criminal justice program at Long Island's Molloy College. Eterno, a critic of the police department’s emphasis on statistics, reviewed the records for WNYC.
“This is what the NYPD does,” he said. “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.”
John DeCarlo, an associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College, also reviewed the records. He said Pantaleo seems to be an average cop and that there were no red flags to indicate a pattern of using excessive force.
Nevertheless, some Staten Island residents arrested by Pantaleo and his anti-crime unit describe a cop who is aggressive and quick to get physical.
Donovan Taylor was 17 when he saw cops stopping his father outside a laundry facility two years ago. Taylor said that when he went over to find out what was going on, Pantaleo ordered him to stand back.
Taylor later acknowledged that he didn’t immediately back away, but he said it all happened so quickly — one moment he was questioning the cop, and then suddenly four officers were wrestling him to the ground.
“I was scared. I’m not trying to fight back. It was too many of them,” Taylor said.
Taylor was charged with assaulting a police officer, but that charge was dismissed. He ultimately pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct violation.
Defense attorneys and civil rights lawyers can typically rattle off the names of cops with bad reputations. But a number of attorneys interviewed for this story said they’d never heard of Pantaleo before the Garner case. The Staten Island office of Legal Aid, which provides defense for people who can’t afford a private attorney, keeps about 200 files on problem officers in that borough — cops with a history of excessive force complaints or credibility issues. But Pantaleo wasn’t one of them.
Pantaleo has been sued twice in federal court for civil rights violations. But court filings show other cops in his precinct have been sued far more frequently.
Court records show Pantaleo was the subject of civilian complaints and has come under scrutiny from NYPD investigators. But in New York state, disciplinary records for police officers are confidential, so there’s no way to know the basis for the complaints or how his disciplinary history compares to other officers.
Pantaleo didn’t respond to an interview request. His attorney and the NYPD declined to comment. A Staten Island grand jury is set to consider criminal charges against Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner this month.
Noah Veltman contributed to this story.