Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who choked an unarmed black man to death in broad daylight, was fired this week. While announcing the move, New York City Police Department Commissioner James O’Neill—who had the sole discretion to fire Pantaleo—blamed victim Eric Garner for “resisting arrest” and being in “poor health.” O’Neill declared, “If I was still a cop, I’d probably be mad at me” for firing Pantaleo.
And mad the cops are. Nobody is angrier than Pat Lynch, head of the New York City Police Benevolent Association. Reacting to the firing, Lynch said, “The rule of law has been ignored. The job has been dying; and today, the job is dead.”
Dead. Like Eric Garner, who was choked to death on the street while pleading for air? Dead. Like Tamon Robinson, a 27-year-old cashier from Brooklyn, who police allege ran into their patrol car while fleeing from officers? Dead. Like Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old who was shot in his grandmother’s bathroom because police thought he had a gun, when in reality he was armed only with marijuana? Dead. Like Sean Bell, who was shot at 50 times on the eve of his wedding by police who erroneously thought he had a gun? Dead. Like Amadou Diallo, who was 23 years old when police fired 41 shots at him after they mistook his wallet for a gun?
Nothing would make me safer on the streets of New York than for the Pat Lynches of the world to determine that cracking black skulls is just not worth it anymore, hang up their jackboots, and leave the black and brown people of New York City in peace. Assalamualaikum, “mad” cops. I’ll gladly take my chances without you. At least then, if I’m murdered, it will be an illegal act, as opposed to a death that you all will try to justify because I once got a demerit in high school.
According to New York City, the Civilian Complaint Review Board—the body meant to bring oversight and transparency to policing—receives upward of 4,000 complaints alleging police misconduct annually. It says that 42 percent of the complaints include allegations of improper use of force.
But how many officers are actually investigated and fired because of these allegations? New York City keeps that information secret, but Buzzfeed got ahold of a data dump of secret disciplinary files last year. Those files showed that between 2011 and 2015, 1,800 NYPD employees were charged with misconduct, but only a handful were ever fired. They showed that 250 employees were charged with excessive force, including employees who work as school safety agents. They showed that over 100 employees lied on official documents or in open court. They showed that the overwhelming majority of these people kept their jobs and received minimal internal discipline.
To put these numbers in context, the NYPD employs around 55,000 officers and civilian auxiliaries. The department made some 200,000 arrests in 2018. Usually, these stats are used to support the ridiculous claim that it’s just a “few bad apples” who are on the police force. But the cops and police boosters around the country misunderstand the meaning of the phrase. The line is “a few bad apples spoils the bunch.” Not “a few bad apples should be overlooked and fed to black and brown citizens until they choke to death on worms.”
The point of highlighting the relatively small number of cops and police employees who commit acts of violence and misconduct is to emphasize that divesting the police force of these people is something that could happen—easily. It would happen if cops and politicians ever decided to take black lives seriously. You could suspend every single officer ever accused of police misconduct, pending a thorough, impartial civilian investigation, and still be able to patrol the streets. You could fire every officer who uses brutal and violent tactics to secure an arrest, and still have plenty of officers capable of getting the job done. You could jail every officer who shoots an unarmed citizen, whether that officer thought he was justified or not, and nobody would miss them.
The solution is really quite simple: Every police officer who refuses to respect the rights and dignity of nonwhite citizens should be kicked off the force.
Police brutality is not a fact we have to live with. It’s a fact that the predominantly white people in charge have decided I am required to live with—if I am lucky enough to actually live through any encounter with the police—because they are too scared of people like Pat Lynch and the police union. It’s a fact that Commissioner O’Neill has decided is a fine price for me to pay so that he can spend five years deciding whether or not to fire an officer who killed a man who was only suspected of selling loose cigarettes. It’s a fact that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has decided I must live with, his son must live with, and my sons must live with, because he’s been too ineffectual and weak to actually take on the police union, despite running on a campaign to do so.
At the Bronx Zoo this summer, I took my eyes off my kid for a moment, and when I relocated him, he was talking to a police officer. I was not relieved. I was terrified. Most of the animal enclosures at the Zoo are safer for my 6-year-old than standing within shooting range of a New York City cop. I quickly retrieved my boy, obsequiously “thanking” the officer, and retreated, being sure to make no sudden movements. Once far enough away, I laid into my boy. “What did I tell you about talking to cops?” “What did he ask you?” “Don’t you ever answer a question from a cop.” “All you are ever allowed to say to a cop is ‘Mommy,’ ‘Daddy,’ or ‘Lawyer.’”
When we got home, my wife had to talk me out of throwing away all of his PAW Patrol toys, because I sometimes blame “Chase,” the police pup, for making it harder for me to school my boys about the real police.
Police officers should be “mad” at Daniel Pantaleo for reminding me that fear and distrust of the police is the best survival strategy I can impart to my children. The officers who are mad instead at the department for firing Pantaleo should themselves be fired. They would be, if Commissioner O’Neill cared about my children or the other black and brown children that he is allegedly supposed to protect and serve.