What if Eric Garner's death in a confrontation with NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014 hadn't been videotaped?
The public or Garner's family might never have gotten meaningful information about what happened that day on Staten Island. Unfortunately, they still haven't gotten any meaningful information on whether, before the incident, Pantaleo had ever been accused of wrongdoing or disciplined for it.
The same scenario is true time and again on Long Island.
Anthony DiLeonardo, then a Nassau County police officer, was found in a department internal affairs investigation to have beaten and shot a cabdriver in Huntington without justification while drunk and off duty in 2011, according to a copy of the report obtained by Newsday. But nearly all of what several investigations found about DiLeonardo, the police partner who was with him that night, and Nassau and Suffolk County officers involved in a cover-up of the pair's actions remains hidden from the public.
So does information on at least 200 officers in both counties who have been linked to misconduct, often quite serious, but who frequently have faced no significant discipline.
It's all thanks to an unwise state law, cemented into place by police unions, known as 50-a. The law keeps officers' personnel records secret unless a judge approves their release.
The Legal Aid Society, which provides legal representation to low-income New Yorkers, is still being stymied in its attempts to find out how many times the city's independent Civilian Complaint Review Board has had complaints about Pantaleo, and what the board did in response.
That's despite the fact that a judge has ordered the release of those records. State Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger in July rejected the claim by city lawyers that 50-a did not apply to the narrow information Legal Aid sought, and pointed out that the CCRB had willingly and regularly given out such information in the past to lawyers who requested it. The city and Pantaleo's lawyers are appealing that ruling in an attempt to twist this bad law even further to shield both the officer and the city.
Pantaleo is seen choking Garner to the ground in that July 17, 2014, video. However, a Staten Island grand jury did not indict him, even though the city's medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide. The city has since settled a civil case with Garner's family for $5.9 million, but taxpayers have no way to know whether that was a fair settlement without knowing Pantaleo's work history. The Justice Department is still investigating whether the officer violated Garner's civil rights. Meanwhile, Pantaleo remains on modified duty, stripped of his gun and badge.
The people have a right to know when police officers are accused of serious transgressions, and what investigations find. It's true in New York City and on Long Island, whether videos capture the action or not, whether citizens are dead or merely mistreated. A law that keeps such information from the public is a travesty, and must be changed.