‘It’s Past the Point of No Return’: An NYPD Officer Opens Up About What Went Wrong in the Eric Garner Case

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NEW YORK, NY - JULY 28:  Police stand near where two U.S. Marshals and one New York Police Department (NYPD) detective were shot in the afternoon along a quiet street on July 28, 2014 in the West Village of Manhattan, New York City. While details are still emerging, the officer and marshals were trying to apprehend a suspect who was shot and killed in the incident.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Huge protests erupted across New York City last night after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death last July of Eric Garner. The decision sparked outrage following a similar decision by a grand jury in Missouri a week ago, in the case of Michael Brown — another black man who died at the hands of a white police officer.

The protesters in New York last night were hard to miss. They were lying in the streets, walking up the middle of the West Side Highway, blocking off the Brooklyn Bridge. The police officers stationed at the demonstrations ranged from friendly to scornfully aggressive — but throughout the evening I spent bouncing around between various protest sites, I found myself wondering how they really felt about what was happening in the city they swore to protect. So I contacted an NYPD police officer who had been honest with me in the past and, very early this morning, after the demonstrations dispersed, we met for a drink at a bar on the Upper West Side. He agreed to speak frankly — though anonymously — with me about his views on the case. I pulled out a digital recorder, and we started chatting.

So what happened tonight? It got really crazy out there.
Yeah, it was a shitshow. The worst part was Brooklyn. They should have blocked off the bridge, but one of the Manhattan chiefs fucked up and decided, “Let them go to Brooklyn so they’re not our problem anymore.” So they were unprepared. Brooklyn [precincts] were pissed.

What do you think about all this? I mean, honestly — that video. Eric Garner looked so scared.
Well, Garner was in bad health, and Pantaleo said it wasn’t a chokehold; he was just trying to take him down so they could arrest him. The thing that nobody hears about in the media is that Garner had been arrested for this before. The store owners, they had been … saying he was taking away their business. These people pay their taxes; they pay for tobacco licenses. They wanted him gone.

Right, but he wasn’t fighting the cops. He was just standing there with his hands up.
Yeah, but he’s a big guy. He could have been holding up his hands, or he could have been threatening them. All I’m saying is that cop needed to arrest him. Once that was decided on, they had to take him in one way or the other, and he didn’t want to go … but maybe there was excessive force used. I won’t say there wasn’t.

So you don’t think this is a race thing?
No, it’s not a race thing. It’s a Ray Kelly thing. That man singlehandedly ruined this department. When I came up as a rookie, you were assigned an older cop who had been around and knew what they were doing. We were taught that you catch more flies with honey. Basically, if you let the small things go — like the guy selling loosies or weed or whatever on the corner — then when the big shit happens, like homicide or burglary, those are the same guys who will tell you all about it. If they hate you, they won’t tell you shit.

But this is happening everywhere. I mean, Ferguson — there have been so many of these cases for so long.
All I know is New York City. Nowadays, since Kelly’s Operation Impact, rookies are taught one thing: Write tickets, do searches, make money. They’ll have a quota they have to fill. They’re not supposed to, but they do. They come up not knowing their asses from their elbows. These rookies don’t understand how to let the small stuff go. They’ll be on your back for a bag of grass. So then when things happen, they overreact.

Pantaleo came up during the Kelly years. You think he overreacted?
Yeah, I guess so. He could have just looked at that guy and seen he wasn’t going to get violent. They talk about racial profiling now, but the thing is, back when I came up, we were taught how to profile. We profiled criminal intent. You could look at a guy and see how he moved, what he was looking at, his behavior. You’d know the guys that were carrying and the ones who weren’t. And you knew the ones who weren’t coming in without a fight.

But there’s so much anger against the NYPD.
They hate us because we take away their freedom. They don’t hate firefighters or EMTs, right? Ninety percent of this job is resolving domestic disputes, helping some old lady who’s fallen out of bed, dealing with drunk people and the homeless. Minor stuff. It’s the 10 percent that means we lock them up they don’t like. But the ones who are afraid of us are generally the ones who should be.

Those protesters who filled the streets tonight can’t all be criminals. 
No, you’re right. They’re pissed off. This thing is everywhere; it’s past the point of no return. It’ll be much worse tomorrow and Friday. It’s just that people don’t hear our side. When you’ve been on this job for a while, you see some awful shit. There was a little girl who died once — anyway, you just numb-out to a certain extent. When you see those same things over and over, you just lose some part of yourself.