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James O'Neill, NYPD commissioner, says he took 'no pleasure' in firing Daniel Pantaleo

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill on Monday.

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill on Monday. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

James O'Neill stood before reporters at One Police Plaza Monday and reminded them that he had spent 34 years as a uniformed NYPD cop, although Monday it fell to him to fire the officer at the center of a whirlwind that was the death of Eric Garner.

"It's in my DNA," O'Neill said of policing."It's who I am."

"But as police commissioner," he added, "I have to think about the city and the rules and regulations in the NYPD."

He had terminated Pantaleo, siding with the department judge who ruled the 13-year veteran had violated departmental policy by using a banned chokehold that ultimately caused the death of Garner in 2014 during an arrest.

Still, the commissioner acknowledged, the dismissal went against his grain.

"If I was a cop right now, I'd probably be mad at me," he said.

A somber O'Neill said he took "no pleasure" in his decision and said he identified with the challenges that a street cop like Pantaleo could encounter. The officer had tried to stop Garner from selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. The confrontation escalated and, a judge ruled, he used a banned chokehold that resulted in Garner's collapse and death.

"I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes. And had I made those mistakes, I would have wished I had used the arrival of back-up officers to give the situation more time to make the arrest. And I would have wished that I had released my grip before it became a chokehold,” he said.

“No one believes that Officer Pantaleo got out of bed on July 17, 2014, thinking he would make choices and take actions — during an otherwise routine arrest — that would lead to another person’s death. But an officer’s choices and actions, even made under extreme pressure, matter.”

As the city's 43rd police commissioner, Pantaleo's firing was probably the biggest decision O'Neill has made since he assumed the top cop post in September 2016. 

O'Neill said the decision was an extremely difficult one. But he was firm and forceful in backing the recommendation of trial commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado who first said that Pantaleo should be fired.

"I stand before you today to say I have reached the correct decision," he said.

After joining the department in 1983 as transit cop, O'Neill had a steady rise through the department, becoming a commander of the 44th Precinct in the Bronx. His career then got a boost in 2014 when then-Commissioner Bill Bratton appointed him to positions of increasing responsibility, including chief of department. Then, when Bratton left in September 2016, O'Neill was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to the top job.

O'Neill said he had been thinking about what to do in the Garner case since he was sworn in as commissioner. And in the end, he called Garner's death a tragedy that led to "a different kind of tragedy" — Pantaleo's firing.

"There are absolutely no victors here today," he said.

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