NEW YORK (AP) — When the New York Police Department fired an officer last year for putting Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold, the officer’s union argued that there was little, if any, precedent within the department’s internal disciplinary system for such a penalty.
Now, the nation’s largest police department is spelling out potential ramifications for officer misconduct, unveiling on Monday a draft of a discipline matrix that will guide punishment decisions similarly to how sentencing guidelines are used in criminal cases. It will be adopted after a 30-day public comment period.
“We wanted to make it very, very clear that if you do certain things there are certain consequences,” said Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo, who helped develop the disciplinary policies with the help from department officials and outside agencies.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called it a “big step forward for transparency and accountability.”
Messages seeking comment were left with the city’s largest police union and the city’s police watchdog agency, as well as various organizations that have advocated for police reform.
The NYPD is shifting to formal disciplinary guidelines at a time when law enforcement agencies around the world are being pressed to be more transparent about officer discipline in the wake of protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd earlier this year and other instances of alleged police brutality.
Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, who will still have the final say on officer discipline, said it was important to have a “road map” so the public and officers know what to expect. Development of the matrix was well underway when city council passed a law in June mandating its use. The law also requires that the public be informed how often Shea deviates from it.
Around the same time, state lawmakers sought to shed more light by repealing a decades-old law that had kept police disciplinary files secret. Police unions suing to block their release are appealing after a judge ruled last week that they should be made public.
A 48-page draft report lists presumptive penalties for dozens of forms of misconduct, including termination for using deadly physical force without justification, engaging in hate speech and making a false statement.
Among the other items covered in the matrix: If an officer forgets to turn on his or her body camera while responding to an incident, he or she can be suspended or docked three days, but if it’s done intentionally, it’s a 20-day punishment.
Accessing confidential information or conducting personal business while on duty can be punished with a suspension or loss of 10 vacation days, while leaking confidential information to the news media can be punished with a 20-day suspension or loss of vacation days.
A chokehold resulting in death and the intentional use of a chokehold are also grounds for firing. The police department has long banned chokeholds and state and city lawmakers recently passed laws explicitly outlawing the tactic. The state law was named for Garner, who died in 2014 after then-Officer Daniel Pantaleo took him to the ground and put him in a chokehold.
In developing a discipline matrix, the police department is fulfilling one of the last remaining recommendations from a panel of criminal justice experts that then-Police Commissioner James O’Neill enlisted two years ago to examine the department’s disciplinary process.
While the panel of two former U.S. attorneys and a former federal judge said they found the disciplinary process generally worked well, they said a set of guidelines would help eliminate the perception of favoritism or bias in officer punishment. They also called for stiffer penalties for officers who make false statements and for officers who commit domestic violence.
The department revised its punishment guidelines for domestic violence last year, Pontillo said. Under the guidelines, a officer can be fired for an act of domestic violence that results in serious physical injuries, violates a restraining order or is part of a pattern of abuse.
Pontillo’s group spend more than a year shaping the new guidelines. They looked at five years or more of case outcomes to get a sense of the penalties that had been applied for various offenses and studied how other police departments — including Los Angeles, Denver and New Orleans — built their guidelines. They also solicited input from the watchdog agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption.
Under the police department’s disciplinary process, the CCRB investigates public complaints regarding alleged police abuses. The NYPD’s internal affairs bureau also investigates officer misconduct.
If departmental charges are filed, an officer can either agree to a penalty in a settlement agreement or take the case to trial before an administrative judge at department headquarters. The judge sends any punishment recommendations to First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, who passes his recommendation to Shea.