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Communities Suffer When Deadly Force Is Used In Pursuit Of Low-Level Crimes


This is a year that's drawn a lot of attention to the way police do their jobs. A shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, raised questions about how police use force. Today, a second look at a death in New York City sheds light on how police do their jobs in the nation's largest city. A grand jury is investigating the death of a man in a police chokehold earlier this year. The officer in that case was Daniel Pantaleo. He was taking an approach to policing that is common, but controversial. Reporter Robert Lewis of member station WNYC found this story in Pantaleo's arrest records.


ERIC GARNER: I'm minded my business. Please, just leave me alone.

ROBERT LEWIS, BYLINE: Those were among the last words Eric Garner ever spoke. He was backing away from officers who wanted to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island. A grainy cellphone video captured the encounter and set off widespread protests across New York City. In the video, five cops pounce. Officer Daniel Pantaleo grabs Garner around the neck from behind.


GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe

LEWIS: Over and over, Garner says, I can't breathe and then falls silent. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide caused in part by the chokehold. The case has inflamed old passions over police tactics in minority communities and the treatment of African-American men, all over the illegal sale of loose cigarettes, a violation of tax laws.

But law enforcement experts say it shouldn't come as a shock when a minor arrest turns into a major tragedy. For decades, the NYPD has embraced a style of policing that emphasizes the aggressive pursuit of low-level offenses in the belief that will stop more serious crimes. It's often called the broken windows theory of policing. Some experts say the focus now shouldn't just be on the cop involved, but also on that overall approach.

EUGENE O'DONNELL: Both in Staten Island and in Ferguson, Missouri, the conversation ended up revolving around the actors at the absolutely the lowest level of the system, the police officers.

LEWIS: Eugene O'Donnell is a lawyer and former police officer who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He says big-picture questions about what's criminalized and how we treat minority communities need to be addressed. In Missouri, officials should be talking about economic development in low-income areas. And in New York, there should also be a bigger discussion.

O'DONNELL: Whether New York City street cops should be making arrests for taxation offenses, these were important policy questions that did not seem to attract a broad audience.

LEWIS: Records show that except for the tragic outcome, the arrest of Eric Garner was a routine affair for Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Far from being a rogue cop, Pantaleo's career is a model of policing in the NYPD. He's listed as the arresting officer in 259 criminal court cases since he came on the force in 2007. Only 24 were for felonies, according to an analysis of state court records. Professor John Eterno runs the criminal justice program at Molloy College. He flipped through the records of Pantaleo's arrests on a recent afternoon.

JOHN ETERNO: Criminal possession of a controlled substance, unlicensed operation of a vehicle - again not a major thing, but it is something. Criminal trespass once again - we see a lot of those. Possession of marijuana - we see a number of those in here.

LEWIS: Eterno is a former NYPD captain. He says it looks like the department was driving Pantaleo to value quantity of arrests over quality.

ETERNO: There are some weapon arrests, which is very good. I did see a few robberies, but very, very limited.

LEWIS: Two-thirds of Pantaleo's cases that made it to court ended up getting dismissed or with the person pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct violation - just little more serious than a speeding ticket. These are people who feel they were arrested and run through the system for no good reason and who see the cops almost as an occupying force. Terrell Thompson lives in Port Richmond, one of the rougher areas in Staten Island. Pantaleo arrested him last spring.

TERRELL THOMPSON: They always stop, like, black people around here in this neighborhood.

LEWIS: Thompson was taking some old metal to the local scrap yard and wound up in criminal court on charges of obstructing traffic and resisting arrest. He agreed to do three days of community service and stay out of trouble for six months to get his case dismissed. Pantaleo, his attorney and the NYPD wouldn't comment. As to the policy question, whether the aggressive pursuit of smalltime offenders is worth the cost to communities, the NYPD seems to think so. The police commissioner says he'll continue to focus on so-called quality-of-life crimes. But he is retraining officers in the use of force. For NPR News, I'm Robert Lewis in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Lewis