What Happens Now That a Cop Has Been Charged in the Eric Garner Case?

A sergeant on the scene of Eric Garner's now-famous death in July 2014 is being slapped with departmental charges. We asked a former cop and prosecutor exactly what that means.

Photo via Flickr user Mike Mozart

In December 2014, after a grand jury on Staten Island announced that it would not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, New York Police Department Commissioner William J. Bratton defended the process. "They arrived at a decision," he told reporters, "so we really shouldn't be criticizing the system, or the jurors." But the country—or, at least according to one poll, 57 percent of it—disagreed. And, of course, thousands swarmed the streets to protest.

Yet even amid calls for reform in the grand jury process, Bratton's sentiments have more or less stood the test of time: Officer Pantaleo is still on modified duty, pending the Department of Justice's own probe, which is now over a year old; another unnamed officer, who is seen next to Pantaleo in the notorious video, was temporarily placed on administrative duty; and four EMS workers from the Richmond University Medical Center, where Garner was pronounced dead, were suspended without pay. (Three of the four have since returned to work, including one at that same facility.)

In other words: No one really got in deep shit for the 43-year-old's death, which was ruled a homicide by the Medical Examiner's office. At least not until now.

On Friday, Sergeant Kizzy Adonis was stripped of her badge and gun, and booked on departmental charges for her role in Garner's July 2014 demise. Adonis, a 14-year veteran of the force who was promoted to sergeant just weeks before Garner died, was one of the supervising officers who arrived at the scene. And she is reportedly facing four disciplinary counts of failing to do exactly that: supervising.

According to an internal NYPD report, she told investigators that "the perpetrator's condition did not seem serious, and that he did not appear to get worse," and eventually said that she "believed she heard the perpetrator state that he was having difficulty breathing." (Later, Garner's last words, repeated 11 times, "I can't breathe," would serve as protesters' rallying cry.)

This makes her the first person involved in the Garner case to be charged—if not criminally, at least departmentally—with anything. And, aside from Officer Pantaleo, who may or may not face internal charges after the federal probe ends, she could be the only one.

However, the internal case can't move until the federal inquiry is over, a date that nobody seems to know at this point. And when it does happen, Sergeant Adonis will enter a trial law procedure that is overseen by the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau—which doesn't have the best track record of punishing its own kind, especially when it regards chokehold cases—and ultimately, Commissioner Bratton himself.

So we asked Eugene O'Donnell, a law enforcement professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former NYPD officer and Brooklyn prosecutor who's written for VICE, what these new disciplinary charges really mean.

VICE: So Sergeant Adonis is getting internally charged more than a year after Eric Garner passed away. But why now?
Eugene O'Donnell: The charges were brought now because there is an 18-month statute of limitations. The cops have due-process rights.

Once the federal probe is resolved and the internal case against Adonis can proceed, what happens then?
If Sergeant Adonis contests the charges, she is entitled to a full-scale hearing (that the cops think is bogus). But if she contests, her innocence tends to work disfavorably against her. Should the sergeant opt for, or be forced to, a trial, which is sort of a major court martial in the police world, the proceedings are public and you can attend.

Stepping back it bit, what do these charges say about NYPD policy, in general?
In terms of discipline, the sergeant is one of those rarely charged with inaction—almost always the cops are cited for acting, not avoiding [action]. It raises the question of whether she is singled out because she happens to be a black woman. Or is it just the department, by default, once again excoriating one of its own for institutional failures, without specifying what a sergeant should do in this situation? Similarly, when someone says they are not going to acquiesce to being arrested, what is the NYPD playbook? What specific steps should Pantaleo and others take.

Hanging over this is the acknowledgement by the department, which initially seemed commendable, that street cops don't have any real training and direction about how to make adversarial arrests. This reality is similar for supervisors. NYPD ran everybody through how-to-make-arrests training after Garner, because the department has avoided this topic [and] the need for physicality for years.

Is this a sign of progress for the NYPD?
For cops, this represents the agency they work for at its worst. Who ordered the cops to go after Garner? Why was loose cigarette enforcement—a revenue crime [usually associated with "broken windows" policing]—the concern of street cops? Why do the Mayor and the Commissioner continue to stand over the decision to deploy cops to make this absurd arrest? This is a political failure.

An Inspector General that could point a searchlight upwards and come up with the answers and hold political decision-makers accountable would have some worth here. But we have an IG that is totally directed against those without decision-making powers: street officers. Which is why the office is a waste. So One Police Plaza must defend itself: This case, surely a bad outcome, with the death of Mr. Garner, must be the fault of some lower-level person.

In the end, what's the rate of punishment with these types of internal charges?
She can be disciplined, but that must ordinarily be consistent with what has happened to similarly situated people. She could lose her job, but it's highly unlikely. Or she could lose vacation days, which is a more likely outcome. I think she is a tenured sergeant so she can't lose her rank. But she could be blacklisted and sent to terrible assignments without due process.

The Department's internal disciplinary system is viewed as a Kangaroo Court. This will further disincentivize cops and their bosses from acting, which is good if you live in a building with a vigilante doorman or robust private security, but bad if you don't. To outsiders, the cops are running amuck. For those inside, it's just another reminder to get off the street, or retire at first light.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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