By Aaron Morrison, The Appeal

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at Wednesday's presidential debate  Scott Olson/Getty Images

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at Wednesday's presidential debate

Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Wednesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was more than 600 miles away from home at Detroit’s ornate Fox Theater, where he’d taken the debate stage with nine other Democratic presidential candidates. But he didn’t escape hometown protesters dissatisfied with his performance on issues of police accountability.

“Fire Pantaleo, fire Pantaleo, fire Pantaleo,” a small group of protesters chanted during the nationally televised debate. Their chants referenced NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo who, on July 17, 2014, used a banned chokehold technique to take down Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black man allegedly selling loose cigarettes in front of a Staten Island convenience store. Garner, who died as a result of the attempted arrest, was filmed repeatedly telling Pantaleo and other officers, “I can’t breathe.” His final words became a national rallying cry for Black Lives Matter demonstrators in New York and beyond.

Yet, in the more than five years after Garner’s death, a local grand jury cleared Pantaleo of wrongdoing, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to bring criminal civil rights charges against the officer, and, to the dismay of Garner’s family and activists, de Blasio hasn’t ordered his police chief to fire Pantaleo. At the debate, he promised Garner’s family justice “in the next 30 days,” claiming that his hands were tied until recently because of a federal investigation.

His comment had echoes of one from Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who fielded a question on Tuesday night from debate moderator Don Lemon over the lack of racial diversity in his city’s police force. Racial tensions in South Bend boiled over after the June 16 fatal shooting of a Black man by a South Bend police officer. Though Buttigieg said his city was revising its use of force policy and rethinking the composition of the board of safety that handles police matters, he also deflected some responsibility.

“I’ve proposed a Douglass plan [named after abolitionist Frederick Douglass] to tackle this issue nationally, because mayors have hit the limits of what you can do unless there is national action,” he said.

But experts on policing say that both mayors may have understated their own power.

“When mayors claim that they have no influence over the discretionary decision-making of a police chief, that is bogus,” Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at New York’s Brooklyn College and the author of “The End of Policing,” told The Appeal. “At the very least, they have the power to send a message to the police chief. And if the police chief is not willing to obey, as a matter of policy, they then need a new police chief overnight.”

As city executives, most mayors oversee their city’s police, and are responsible for their behavior. They often handpick the top brass for their police departments, can influence disciplinary decisions, and can appoint people to civilian oversight boards that independently investigate abuse and misconduct allegations.

So, when a mayor fails to sideline or suspend officers at the center of fatal encounters with citizens, it’s not because they don’t have the power to do so, Vitale said.

Clarence Taylor, author of “Fight the Power,” a book about the history of police brutality against African Americans in New York City, agreed. Regarding de Blasio, he said, “It’s true that he probably can’t outright fire Pantaleo. But he can suspend him indefinitely. He does have the power to do that … He got caught yesterday and rightfully so.” 

De Blasio’s and Buttigieg’s campaigns did not respond to an immediate request for comment.

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Olivia McDowellComment