Judge Orders Release of Chokehold Cop’s Records

     MANHATTAN (CN) – A judge ordered New York City to turn over substantiated complaints against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, one year to the day after he placed unarmed Staten Island resident Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold.
     The ruling marks a decisive open-government victory for the Legal Aid Society’s leader Justine Luongo, who petitioned for the records in February.
     Celebrating the decision, Luongo urged the city to drop what she called its “circle the wagons” mentality toward public information in a phone interview.
     “The public is certainly now realizing the more transparent we are, the more that we can heal,” she said.
     Her narrow request sought the summary of complaints filed against Pantaleo that were substantiated by the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, and how the watchdog followed up on these complaints, if at all.
     Although Legal Aid did not seek actual copies of the substantiated complaints, New York City stonewalled the information on grounds that the information would be “inherently stigmatizing and subject to abuse.”
     Judge Alice Schlesinger rejected that argument in a July 17 opinion, the first anniversary of Garner’s death.
     The stigma that Pantaleo faces, the judge said, has more to do with the public seeing video footage of his chokehold on Garner uploaded onto the Internet than the government’s release of information about the incident.
     “While it is not this court’s role to pass judgment on Mr. Pantaleo’s actions, it is for this court to opine as to the causes of any backlash that he has encountered, and any backlash that he could encounter in the future,” her opinion stated. “This is because this proceeding is not about the validity or invalidity of Mr. Pantaleo’s actions on July 17, 2014; it is about whether the release of the summary could harm him going forward.”
     She added that she believes “any adverse reactions expressed toward Mr. Pantaleo have their roots in the video of the incident, which speaks for itself, and, thereafter, in the Staten Island grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict him.”
     On the night of the grand jury decision, New York City residents took to the streets by the thousands, snarling traffic on streets, highways, bridges and tunnels in protests that continued for weeks.
     The evidence heard by the grand jury has largely remained a mystery, because the city has refused to release the grand jury records. A Staten Island judge upheld that refusal, and unrelated open-records battle over that docket remains ongoing.
     Since Legal Aid is seeking “only the most rudimentary of information,” Schlesinger added that “any backlash in response to the release of the summary, while improbable in the first instance, is more likely to be directed at the NYPD, which would have received CCRB’s recommendations, than at Pantaleo.”
     The opinion does not set a deadline for the CCRB’s release of the information.
     While New York City did not immediately respond to a request for comment, it previously released statements that it would review the decision. An appeal by the city or police union intervention could spell further delay.
     Hoping for a speedy resolution, Luongo said: “The family’s waited patiently. The public’s waited patiently.”
     Speaking from a public defender’s perspective, she added that records such as these are also important to protect the due-process rights of those accused of a crime.
     “When you think about the right to confrontation, the right to an effective defense, that information is really crucial,” she said.
     Pantaleo is still facing civil actions in federal courts from two other black men from Staten Island who claim they violated their rights.
     The city paid the Garner family $5.9 million last week to avoid litigation, and it settled lawsuits in Brooklyn Federal Court on undisclosed terms.

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