Amidst policing controversies, differences in accountability between Chicago and New York


On Tuesday, advocates for police reform and political accountability forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D-Chicago) to secure the resignation of Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy.

The stunning change in top police leadership took place one week after officials released video of Chicago Police Department Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting and killing Laquan McDonald.  Chicago P.D. Officer Van Dyke was charged with murder of Mr. McDonald just hours before the release of controversial dashcam video that showed the shooting, but a year after the actual shooting took place.

Police Superintendent McCarthy's resignation was the result of mounting public frustration with the delayed release of dashcam video showing Mr. McDonald's death.  The video's release had been the subject of a political hot potato between the Cook County State Attorney's Office, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Emanuel administration, and the video's release was only made possible after the journalist Brandon Smith filed and litigated a Freedom of Information Act request.

The swift change in Chicago police leadership contrasts with the situation of William Bratton, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, or NYPD.  Despite the existence of similarly explosive video of the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, Commissioner Bratton has remained entrenched as the top cop at the NYPD during a national #BlackLivesMatter social movement calling for police reform and accountability. 

Locally, some police reform advocates see differences between Chicago and New York City that explain the differences in top police leadership.

There was a cover-up that was exposed by the release of the video and by the timing of the criminal charges against Chicago P.D. Officer Van Dyke, said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, or PROP, adding that, "That kind of dramatic event triggered and motivated the mayor [in Chicago] to change the [police chief]."  

Mr. Gangi predicted that if NYPD Commissioner Bratton faced a similar controversy that was comparable in severity with the situation facing Chicago P.D. Superintendent McCarthy, "Bratton would not survive a similar event in New York City."

Whereas Mr. Gangi said that Commissioner Bratton's "leadership of the NYPD has been a complete failure," Mr. Gangi noted that Commissioner Bratton has yet to be caught making a blatant violation of the public trust as has been witnessed in Chicago over the delayed release of the dashcam video.  Nonetheless, Mr. Gangi said, "We at PROP would not be sorry to see Bratton resign or be fired."

Mr. Gangi said that he faulted the NYPD for dedicating resources that resulted in about 70 per cent. of its arrests or issuances of summonses for misdemeanors or lesser charges.  Mr. Gangi said that the political reality was that a change in leadership at the NYPD would not necessarily guarantee a change in the meaningful and fundamental way that the NYPD approaches policing in New York City.  That change in policing, Mr. Gangi said, would be up to elected city officials.

A problem with character and integrity, and a partnership with a mayor on shaky ground

As reported by Progress Queens, questions have been raised about Commissioner Bratton's character and integrity in the wake of questionable testimony and crime statistics provided in hearings before the New York City Council.  Despite these questions, and on-going failures by the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) to end the controversial discriminatory and neoconservative Broken Windows policing policy, Commissioner Bratton remains entrenched as the city's top cop. 

After two police officers were shot in Brooklyn at the end of 2014, Mayor de Blasio struggled to manage the expectations of each of police reform activists, who were still waiting for Mayor de Blasio's fulfillment of a central campaign promise :  the end of the race-based policing era of the former administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R-New York City), and the city's rank and file police officers, who believed that they did not have the support of Mayor de Blasio.  The resulting conflict culminated with a retreat by Mayor de Blasio from police reform issues, so much so that in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget, Mayor de Blasio expanded the NYPD by an additional 1,300 police officers, a move that shocked police reform activists, according to a report published by The New York Times.  After a series of other missteps, including a spike in homelessness, political clashes with Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-New York), and hostilities with the City Hall press corps, Mayor de Blasio began to experience dropping opinion poll ratings.  After several defections of senior officials, some see Mayor de Blasio needing the political stability from Commissioner Bratton's continuation at the NYPD, because both men routinely extend political cover to each other from critics.

But as pressure for police reform and political accountability was escalating in Chicago, it was converging with the one-year anniversary of the Staten Island grand jury's decision not to file charges against NYPD Officer Pantaleo in Mr. Garner's chokehold homicide, a decision that led to the eruption of peaceful but large street protests demanding mechanisms to hold NYPD officers accountable for homicides committed by police officers.  In order to deflect the criticism that Commissioner Bratton knew to expect would come his way this week, the city's top cop turned to a media narrative to deflect criticism.

Throwing federal prosecutors under the bus

During a press conference on Wednesday, Commissioner Bratton blamed a long investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice as an excuse for his failure to discipline NYPD Officer Pantaleo for choking Mr. Garner to death. 

Commissioner Bratton said that although the NYPD had completed its administrative investigation of Mr. Garner's chokehold homicide, the NYPD had paused its disciplinary proceedings at the requests of the U.S. Attorney General's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's eastern district, adding that, "We have effectively stopped our investigation until they complete their investigation," Commissioner Bratton said, according to a report published by POLITICO New York.

In a column published by Leonard Levitt before Wednesday's news conference, Commissioner Bratton was reported to have been similarly blaming federal prosecutors for his delay in disciplining NYPD Officer Pantaleo.  "Police sources say Bratton is using the feds’ civil rights investigation as cover not to discipline Pantaleo now," wrote Mr. Levitt.

Requests for interviews were made by Progress Queens to the NYPD's deputy commissioner for public information and the press office for City Hall.  However, both requests were not answered.

During the heated tensions and rhetoric between City Hall and the police unions at the turn of the last year, Commissioner Bratton found himself at the center of criticism that he was not standing behind the police unions, particularly after he wrote a memo, threatening to discipline police officers, who were turning their backs on the mayor.

The political decision by Commissioner Bratton to blame federal prosecutors for his delay in disciplining NYPD Officer Pantaleo is all the more cunning, because, as he delays disciplinary proceedings against a rank-and-file police officer, Commission Bratton, as a seasoned law enforcement official, knows that prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office generally will not cannot comment on active investigations, even if their silence will reflect poorly on them.  Predictably, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's eastern district declined to answer a list of questions submitted by Progress Queens for this report. 

Whereas some police reform activists judged that the U.S. Department of Justice was deliberately prolonging its civil rights probe of Mr. Garner's homicide in order to protect federal prosecutors' "cozy relationship" with local law enforcement, others questioned whether federal prosecutors would willingly subject themselves to the negativity that Commissioner Bratton's accusation widely received in the press.

Other comparisons with Chicago, but there are limits

In Chicago, it was the release of the long-delayed dashcam video that stirred up demands for change in leadership, the only thing long-delayed in New York is the release of the grand jury minutes in NYPD Officer Pantaleo's case.  If the grand jury minutes are ever made public, then some see political liability possibly being limited to U.S. Representative Daniel Donovan (R-Staten Island), the former Richmond County District Attorney, who some say negligently presented NYPD Officer Pantaleo's case to the grand jury.

In addition to removing Chicago's top cop, Mayor Emanuel formed a task force to review the Chicago Police Department.  Some activists in New York City have called for the formation of a commission with prosecutorial powers to investigate NYPD corruption and misconduct similar to former panels, known as the Mollen Commission and the Knapp Commission.  But the Chicago task force is only expected to issue recommendations and not have prosecutorial powers.  

Besides the removal of Chicago P.D. Superintendent McCarthy, police reform activists in Chicago have asked for the resignation of Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez and Mayor Emanuel.  Even the normally patrician Editorial Board of The New York Times has waded into issues of race and policing, calling for the resignation of Chicago city officials, whom, the Editorial Board wrote, had lost the public's trust.  Activists in New York have largely not coalesced around a demand for a change in leadership at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, although, in 2013, Kings County District Attorney Charles Hynes, who never challenged the NYPD's discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices, was defeated in a heated primary election that year.

As shown in a report published by Gothamist, some New York City police reform advocacy groups are organised into opposing factions :  groups that are willing to roll up political responsibility to Mayor de Blasio for the failure of Commissioner Bratton to institute reforms at the NYPD, and groups that won't sacrifice their access to Mayor de Blasio in order to achieve police reform.

As advocates for police reform were arrested for protesting outside Gracie Mansion on Thursday evening to mark the one year anniversary since a Staten Island grand jury refused to file charges against NYPD Officer Pantaleo, the organising group of the Gracie Mansion protest, Justice League NYC, was limiting its immediate demand to the firing of NYPD Officer Pantaleo -- not the resignation or firing of Commissioner Bratton or other changes in political or prosecutorial leadership.  

A prominent coalition of police reform groups, Communities United for Police Reform, which had been previously advised by BerlinRosen, a lobbying firm with close ties to the de Blasio administration, did not answer a request for an interview. 

One of the most consistent police reform groups, New Yorkers Against Bratton, has been protesting Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton even before they were sworn into office.  That group issued a joint statement, along with PROP and other groups, accusing Commissioner Bratton of having lost the public's trust and calling for the disciplinary removal of NYPD Officer Pantaleo and the resignation of Commissioner Bratton.

One New York gain in police reform, made possible by Gov. Cuomo, was the appointment of State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-New York) as a temporary special prosecutor in cases of officer-involved-homicides.  State Attorney General Schneiderman has yet to try a police officer on homicide charges, though.

The complete text of a joint press release calling for the removal of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo and NYPD Commissioner William Bratton :


Joint Statement Calling for Firing of Daniel Pantaleo & Bill Bratton

* This is a joint statement from New Yorkers Against Bratton, El Grito de Sunset Park, Bronxites for NYPD Accountability, Queens Neighborhoods United, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Police Reform Organizing Project, Asociacion Pro Derechos Del Confinado Ñeta, ANSWER Coalition, Brite Leadership Coalition - East NY, Staten Island Against Racism & Police Brutality, Postal Defenders, and Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee

December 2nd—Commissioner Bratton for some time has said that he is waiting on a federal investigation before he can go forward with any actions concerning police officer Daniel Pantaleo. The similarities between Bratton's excuse and those of officials in Chicago, who had said they were waiting on federal probes before they could move to indict the officer who killed Laquan Mcdonald, suggest a convenient relationship between local and federal authorities that produce painful delays for citizens demanding police accountability. In fact, Bratton has always been able to fire Daniel Pantaleo but has simply chosen not to.

During a conference call yesterday between NYC corporation counsel Zachary Carter and some hand-picked community leaders, Mr. Carter admitted that Bratton has the power to fire Pantaleo at any moment, regardless of a federal investigation. While it may be some sort of political courtesy to let federal authorities drag on with their investigations, Bratton and the NYPD are simply using the federal investigation as a cover in order to delay a move that seems logical for a police officer killing an unarmed black man: dismiss him.

One of the reasons that activists and community leaders in Chicago called for the dismissal of Chicago PD superintendent Garry McCarthy is because of how he handled the McDonald case. The public had lost trust in him. A year after Daniel Pantaleo's non-indictment was announced, and almost 18 months since he choked Eric Garner to death in broad daylight, Bratton drags his feet while thousands of people in New York wonder if black lives matter--in a 'progressive' city, in the year 2015.

Who can trust someone who took the job already having had his police officers killing unarmed people of color in the 90's? Anthony Baez, Anthony Rosario, Hilton Vega and 13-yr old Nicholas Heyward Jr. were some of those killed during Bratton's 1st regime. Who can trust someone whose 'Broken Windows' theory of policing laid the road towards Pantaleo and Garner's fatal interaction? Who can trust someone who is signaling to 36,000 other police officers that they can expect to continue collecting taxpayer-funded paychecks years after they kill a civilian?

Pantaleo must be fired and Bratton should resign with him.