Ethics Quiz: The Firing Of Officer Daniel Pantaleo

The New York Police Department has finally fired Daniel Pantaleo, the officer shown on video with his arm bent around the neck of 43-year-old Eric Garner just before Garner died  after being tackled by five officers.  A departmental disciplinary judge recommended the action, and Pantaleo was suspended from duty pending further review.

“In this case the unintended consequence of Mr. Garner’s death must have a consequence of its own,” said O’Neill. “It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.” He also added, “If I was still a cop, I’d probably be mad at me.”

The Commissioner kept digging.

“Cops have to make choices, sometimes very quickly,” said O’Neill. “Those decisions are scrutinized and second-guessed, both fairly and unfairly … I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes.”

O’Neill that watching the video he concluded  that Garner should not have resisted arrest, especially since  complying with the officers probably would have resulted in a summons, not arrest; and that Pantaleo started the interaction using approved techniques but then escalated to a prohibited chokehold.

“Today is a day of reckoning, but it can also be a day of reconciliation,” the commissioner said.

“Cops have to make choices, sometimes very quickly,” said O’Neill. “Those decisions are scrutinized and second-guessed, both fairly and unfairly … I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes.”

O’Neill said he reached two conclusions watching the video — that Garner should not have resisted arrest, particularly given that complying with the officers probably would have resulted in a summons, not arrest; and that Pantaleo started the interaction using approved techniques but then escalated to a prohibited chokehold.

“Today is a day of reckoning, but it can also be a day of reconciliation,” the commissioner said.

Whatever that means.

None of the other officers involved in tackling Garner have faced discipline or been dismissed.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Was it fair for the New York Police Department

to fire Officer Pantaleo?

My take? No, it wasn’t fair. He’s scapegoat, a sacrifice to politics and revenge. If the Commissioner really believes that he might have acted the same way, and that the tragedy resulted from an experienced cop making an excusable miscalculation in an unusual situation—yes, having to wrestle with a 300 pound behemoth resisting arrest is not exactly standards fare—then Pantaleo is being fired because someone’s head had to roll, and his was the most exposed.

Was the firing necessary, and thus responsible? That’s a tougher question. It would be nice if the Police Commisioner could say, because it’s true,

“The one primarily responsible for Eric Garner’s death was Eric Garner. He would have lived if he wasn’t disobeying a law after being warned many times. He would have lived if he did not resist arrest. He would have lived if he wasn’t morbidly obese and in poor health. Punishing an officer for Garner’s death in a situation where the margin for error was so narrow, and when the exact same actions with a different individual would have resulted in no tragedy at all, tells all police that they must be perfect and lucky, or risk the end of their careers. Law enforcement cannot function that way.”

He can’t say that, however, so perhaps the only practical option is to sacrifice Officer Pantaleo.

19 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Firing Of Officer Daniel Pantaleo

  1. Either discipline all the officers involved for not following protocol or accept that the situation escalated beyond protocol and the response was acceptable if not ideal. There is no other consistent course of action.

    On the specifics of this case, even I, who push for holding police officers to a higher standard, can’t find anything wrong with the way they reacted in this situation.

  2. Was firing him fair? No. Was it inevitable? You betcha.

    And thus was removed yet one more block in the Jenga tower of urban American policing. Nobody knows when the tower will collapse, but it gets more and more likely as the game goes on. We’ve got people cheering on a man shooting at police in Philadelphia, people throwing water on police serving a warrant in New York… It’s all getting pretty unstable, and at some point it’s going to become impossible to recruit and retain people to do the job in these big cities. Then what?

    • Then what? Do you not know the answer?

      It’s when Robocop goes from being one of the better low-budget scifi films of the last century to becoming fulfilled prophecy.

      • Yeah, but we don’t have any Robocops, or even any ED-209s. Just think how bad Old Detroit would have been if Robo hadn’t been doing his best to keep order while the other cops were on strike. That’s where this is headed…

  3. On the whole, I agree that Officer Pantaleo’s firing was unnecessary but perhaps inevitable in their current political climate. I am not familiar with NYPD’s policies or practices but in many agencies, use of non-approved force techniques would be grounds for summary termination, whether or not death resulted. I am also not familiar with Officer Pantaleo’s disciplinary history with NYPD, and this also has to be taken into account. Absent such policy and no history of serious disciplinary action, certainly less severe disciplinary action could have been utilized to salvage a career. I have never seen any explanation of exactly what restraint technique Officer Pantaleo was attempting.

    During my police academy training, (1974) I was instructed in the use of the “carotid restraint,” which many people erroneously call a chokehold. Properly applied, the carotid restraint compresses one or both carotid arteries without compressing the airway, and can cause unconsciousness in a matter of seconds. I had the carotid restraint used on me during training and it put me out like a light for 15 – 30 seconds. I subsequently used the carotid restraint many times to good effect and no doubt saving myself as well as suspects from more serious injuries of protracted physical combat. No one I used it on ever experienced anything more than temporary unconsciousness. When the carotid restraint became confused in the public mind with more dangerous airway constriction techniques, it fell from favor and eventually (mid-1980s) became forbidden by most agencies with which I was familiar (although I have heard anecdotally that it is still taught and authorized in some states). Airway constriction techniques are inherently more dangerous because the pressure required to constrict the airway sufficiently to cause unconsciousness can also cause damage to the airway that does not allow it to reopen fully when pressure is released. It is
    possible to safely perform an airway restraint, (many people have) but I was never trained in it.

    No restraint technique is either 100% effective or 100% safe, and as long as we use human beings to police us we must allow for officers not always being “perfect or lucky,” as Jack says, if law enforcement is to function at all.

    • Interesting perspective. I did a search with the term “Officer Pantaleo’s disciplinary history” and found this. It does not seem to me that this is much a disciplinary history (if it is really a report on him and not forged) but I wouldn’t know how to analyze it.

      The Times reported on this same source when it came out:

      Information revealed in the records provided fodder to both supporters and critics of Officer Pantaleo. He accumulated more misconduct allegations than the average among the 36,000-member Police Department, the documents show, but not so many that the young officer could be fairly branded a cowboy or rogue, police experts said. They also noted that Officer Pantaleo usually worked in a plainclothes unit that focused on violent street crime — the kind of policing that can be a magnet for complaints.

      My personal view of a large percentage of these recent highly publicized deaths at the hand of police, except the one where the officer shot the running man in the back, and the other with the university officer who shot a man in his car, is that there is an on-going rebellion in the country and it seems to come down to the fact that the people that are involved in them are showing their ‘will to resist’.

      If the communities were not lawless, rebellious, looking for trouble, and provoking trouble, my understanding is that there would be no or very little problem. I do not think that police go out looking for people to abuse and harm. But they regularly encounter people who have issues with obeying, are often involved in some infraction, or have warrants for arrest. One must certainly take into account their frustration in dealing with the criminal element.

      My view is that one has to look under the surface of the appearances to discover the essential cause. That cause is rebellion. How this rebellion is unfolding is strange and endlessly interesting.

      [Middle English rebellen, from Old French rebeller, from Latin rebellāre : re-, re- + bellāre, to make war (from bellum, war). N., Middle English, rebellious, rebel, from Old French rebelle, from Latin rebellis, from rebellāre.]

      It seems obvious to me that a general rebellion is in the works. Certainly boisterous people on the streets are acting it out. Yet one ring-leader of it is, as we often discuss, the Times which is ‘leading the charge’. One has to take into account that powerful factions in the country have made use of (i.e. manipulated) Blacks in order to create rebellious conditions. Some of those factions are located in Academia and we have all encountered their discourse.

      I am not convinced that those who rebel at the street-level have a good case for their rebellion. I have also watched dozens — maybe even a hundred — various YouTube videos showing police encountering armed and dangerous people.

      • There is an article in the Times today titled Eric Garner and Our Justified Fear of the Police: Daniel Pantaleo has been fired. Black and brown people are still afraid for our lives.

        But as a black journalist who has reported as police officers lobbed tear gas and used sound cannons in Baltimore, Ferguson and New York, and simply as a black person living in America, my experience in Arizona reminded me of how very real the stress of living under occupation is for black and brown people.

        The telling word here is of course ‘occupation’. So let’s contextualize this: the police who stopped Eric Garner were an occupying police force, I am to understand? The implication is of course that the good people await their liberation from the oppressors and that they are ‘freedom fighting’ though their resistance. If a person who resists dies as a result, those people are martyrs of the cause of liberation. They cannot be seen as ‘criminals’.

        It is odd: in writing one employs rhetoric to embellish the solid, rational points that one may have (and must have). If one does not have solid ground and yet relies on the strength of rhetoric, one has an empty argument that renders the rhetorical flourish pernicious. What is curious is when people take on a perceptual view that is rhetorical but non-grounded in truth — in this case that they are an occupied community unjustly policed by an oppressive army — they render themselves arguments without substantial content.

        OK, well that should make sense. But let’s look at what he says: “Black and brown people are still afraid for our lives”. The use of the word ‘our’ is really rather curious. It has a great deal of rhetorical function. What is is saying is that we the brown people are living in a dangerous and oppressive situation. Occupation is killing us (stress). Now, to locate the ‘oppressor’ (this must follow) one only has to locate those who are not ‘us’. The only ones who are not brown are those who are white (if my grasp of this plane of existence is sound!) So, we have located the oppressor. And anyone of ‘us’ who has contact with the police has contact with the oppressive forces. Maybe they will be in a good mood, maybe in a bad mood, but they are oppressors nonetheless. And it stands to reason that the oppressed must be liberated. And what liberates an oppressed people from the occupier is of course a liberation army.

        Therefore (sorry to over-stress all of this but I do so for my own clarity) what is required is massive social resistance and potentially a clandestine army in order to throw off the oppressor. Remember too that any violence directed against the oppressive occupying police force can only be seen as justified by righteous indignation.

        It is fairly obvious to me given the Times recent turn into pretty radical historical interpretation — the 1619 Project as it is called — that the present is to be defined in terms of an on-going liberation-process. Liberation from oppression.

        OK, so all that is pretty easy really. This is after all how these tropes function and how they have always functioned. It does not matter if any of this is true, or even some part of it is true, what matters is that it is happening and that there are people who are solidifying and purveying these perceptual stances. There must be a greater reason. Or to put it another way there must be ‘interested parties’ who can gain and who will gain benefit from revolutionary social conditions. So, it is less a question about the surface (‘that such-and-such is happening) and more a question of Why this is happening? And What stands behind it?

        Well? I’m waaaaaiiiittttiiinnnngggggg for my aaaaannssswwweeeeerrrrrrrr . . . . . 🙂

        [You will have noticed that I have a rather cynical way of reading the Times . . . Literally, I read it upside down.]

        • I completely agree with your conclusion that a rebellion is in progress, and that particular groups are being encouraged to see the police as an occupying, oppressive force. I fear that we are not far from seeing more organized violence against police and indeed all forms of civil social order. The police in some jurisdictions (e.g. Portland, Charlottesville) are playing into the hands of the “rebellion” by passive responses and inaction in the face of blatant criminal conduct. This can only result in more criminality and disregard for / resistance to legitimate police authority.
          As far as your question concerning who will benefit from revolutionary social conditions, It has been my observation that there are always opportunistic politicians and businessmen who see and exploit ways to profit from almost any crisis or upheaval. As a long-time student of America’s so-called Civil War, it is easy to find gross examples of war profiteering from that era, plus the obvious provocation and use of the war by Lincoln and the Radical Republicans to extend the authority of the Federal government and consolidate Hamilton’s goal of a mercantile state that could blatantly profit favored interests at the expense of others.
          Back to the present day, I see any number of “usual suspects” among the “political class” who will not publicly and overtly support rebellion nor will they denounce it or the groups that foment it. Political power seems to be for some an insatiable addiction that leads to many evil outcomes. Power brokers seem to always have sufficient hangers-on to do their bidding and ignore obvious consequences in pursuit of their goals. “Someone” is going to end up at the top of whatever heap emerges from the chaos of rebellion
          One of the primary tactics currently in play is, as you aptly point out, the effort to exploit race in support of this rebellion. In this process, white people are now almost continually demonized as “racist” and “white supremacist.” To leftist whites, we are the “deplorables,” the “clingers,” etc. If this continues, I can foresee a time when significant groups of white people would accede to embrace this identity into which they have been forced by the rebellion. Their conclusion, in effect: “If I oppose this rebellion, this destruction of our republic, and only white supremacists and racists oppose this rebellion, then I must be one.” Others will embrace “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
          People who have not studied revolution in various countries across the past couple of centuries have little idea how quickly low-level civil unrest and challenge to an existing social/political order can erupt into organized conflict and open civil war. Day by day, I lose my optimism that cataclysm can be avoided.

  4. I have watched the video numerous times. Mr. Garner is not becoming violent, is not pushing the officers. Watch his body movements.
    I am conservative and this is one time I see the officer in the wrong.

    • He was clearly in the wrong. As my police chief friend remarked about the incident, you have to be able to de-escalate a situation, especially over something as trivial as selling single cigarettes.

      On the other hand, one can understand the dilemma when a perp just says, “No, officer, screw you. I’m not stopping what I’m doing.” Taking down someone resisting arrest does not get officers fired—unless the individual taken down dies, which is moral luck. Moral luck shouldn’t determine punishment. The question should be: What would be the proper punishment in a similar situation where the tacklee did NOT die because he was too damn big?

      • Here is a similar example that is not controversial.

        https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/31/us/oklahoma-traffic-stop-arrest/index.html

        I saw this live on LivePD knew she was going to be tased before she took off. I knew she wasn’t going to comply. What can the officer do in the face of blatant noncompliance? He has to force compliance or we as a society have to accept the fact that people don’t have to obey the law if they don’t feel like it. How is this situation different than Garner? The only difference is that the woman didn’t die.

        Now, about officer Pantelo’s firing. No one want to go into a career where 1 split second mistake in a stressful situation results in the end of your career. If the surgeon that makes the wrong call during a difficult surgery was stripped of their license forever, no one would spend 10+ years of training to be a surgeon. If lawyers were stripped of their licenses forever for accidentally misplacing a piece of evidence or mistakenly interpreting a law, no one would go to school for 7+ years to be a lawyer. If a plumber lost their license forever because they didn’t get a clamp tight enough or because they didn’t realize that old pipe was too corroded and dumped sewage over a newly remodeled kitchen, no one would spend the time in tech school and in apprenticeship to become a plumber.

        Current officers may keep serving in the hope that they won’t have the bad luck to be fired only because they have so much invested already. New people will not invest the time into a career that could end in a second at any time due to circumstances that just happen on that job.

    • sandsgrandmother wrote,
      Mr. Garner is not becoming violent, is not pushing the officers.

      I agree with your observations. And in a situation with rather low-level stress/aggression, a civilian would expect a certain restraint of the police in initiating violence. But for how long? You can’t expect the police to discuss with mr Garner for 30 minutes. At a certain moment, a police officer will say –out loud or silent to himself, “Enough is enough. You do have to comply with us NOW.”

      How much time is reasonable?

  5. nb. All emphasises in the quotes are mine.

    Jack wrote,
    He can’t say that, however, so perhaps the only practical option is to sacrifice Officer Pantaleo.

    Practical for who? At what cost? At whom’s cost?

    Was the firing necessary, and thus responsible? That’s a tougher question. It would be nice if the Police Commissioner could say, because it’s true,
    […]
    He can’t say that, however, so perhaps the only practical option is to sacrifice Officer Pantaleo.

    It certainly was a though question for the Police Commissioner.
    The Police Commissioner could (a) say the truth and gets fired himself, or (b) he could fire Officer Pantaleo.

    Regarding: He can’t say that, however, so perhaps the only practical option is to sacrifice Officer Pantaleo.

    And why can’t the Police Commissioner say that?

    a. Because as a higher-up/politician “He can’t help himself!”
    ==>Rationalization 25B, The Irresistible Impulse, or “I can’t help myself!”

    b.Because we need to give the city, the black community, Garner’s family a break (the word ‘sacrifice’ says it all
    ==> Rationalization 38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!,”

    c. Because if the Police Commissioner tells the truth worse things could happen. Like him being fired (we can’t have that, can we?) or a city on fire or …
    ==> Rationalization 22, “There are worse things.”

  6. I would also point out, here, that the commissioner circumvented the Police Chief in firing this guy. I would guess that, except in Blue Bloods, the Police Commissioner does not and should not, become involved in individual personnel decisions. I would also guess that the order came from deBlasio.

  7. Yes, it’s fair. The coroner said that the neck compressions caused Garner’s death. The officer was negligent/irresponsible by violating procedure and using the choke hold that produced them.

    It is also true that Garner’s morbid obesity, his resistance, and any of a number of things within Garner’s exclusive control were major contributors to the outcome. But if you violate procedure and cause a homicide, you can’t continue to serve as a police officer.

    The margin of error is very narrow, as you and others correctly point out. It was definitely not the officer’s intent to choke out Garner, he was just trying to get leverage on a very large and unruly man who outmassed him at least 1.5-1.

    So arguendo, there is an element of unfairness when you consider the stress of the situation, the reaction of Garner, and the intent of the officer. But we have to hold people who, even accidentally, cause death by a failure to follow procedure to the standard a rational person would expect, and I’d expect them to be fired.

    Also, the tape reveals that the officer’s lives were in no immediate danger. That makes it even harder to excuse an accidental homicide from, according to the coroner, an entirely preventable cause.

    • I suppose the question follows: is there a proper procedure for subduing a man so massive that standard procedure is insufficient? If not, should the miscreant be permitted to simply stroll away after an initial, failed attempt to perform a situationally insufficient standardized procedure? I argue that this is the recipe for maximization of “”suspects”” resisting arrest. Perhaps Garner’s life is the acceptable cost of law and order rather than the career of a policeman acting in good faith for the public good. Public lionizations of Garner and overwrought punishment of the police, then, are unprincipled attempts to trade order and peace for the short-term political support of a ginned-up criminal class.

      Choosing to drive a car is to accept a lot in the car accident lottery, but buying a ticket should not be the implicit acceptance of the possibility of being treated like a deliberate murderer should one occur in the absence of any actual reckless behavior on one’s part. Choosing to change those stakes while so many stand already holding tickets which were bought under far different terms is to deliberately encourage the social disassembly of motorized personal transportation. So, too, the police. The public adversity to all foreseeable risk is a drive to large-scale inaction for fear of reprisal by the endlessly vindictive. I would not throw them even one more bone. It would be best for us all if they just starved, so we can go about buying groceries and clubbing shoplifters – like a civilized people.

      • I suppose the question follows: is there a proper procedure for subduing a man so massive that standard procedure is insufficient? If not, should the miscreant be permitted to simply stroll away after an initial, failed attempt to perform a situationally insufficient standardized procedure?

        To the first question, I don’t know, but I suspect even if there is, it does not include grabbing the suspect in a a hold that threatens his windpipe.

        To the second question, in my mind, is a false choice. The police have other non-lethal means to subdue people much larger than they are.

        Perhaps Garner’s life is the acceptable cost of law and order rather than the career of a policeman acting in good faith for the public good.

        Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I think the officer got excited, got a little scared (understandably), and made a mistake in judgment. That happens, but the price for a policeman making a mistake that costs a person his life unnecessarily (and no matter how I look at it, this was unnecessary), then he must be dismissed. There was no threat presented by Gardner that the police didn’t have means other than wrestling to deal with.

        Choosing to drive a car is to accept a lot in the car accident lottery, but buying a ticket should not be the implicit acceptance of the possibility of being treated like a deliberate murderer should one occur in the absence of any actual reckless behavior on one’s part.

        And I am by no means suggesting the policeman should be treated like a murderer — he had no mens rea, and was trying to do his job. He just forgot his training in the heat of the moment and made a lethal error. There has to be accountability for that. Dismissal is sufficient, absent aggravating circumstances.

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