By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A state appeals court ruled on Thursday that misconduct records involving the New York City police officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2014 should remain sealed, saying threats to the officer mandated secrecy under the law.
The decision, by a mid-level appeals court in Manhattan, reversed a lower court ruling that ordered the city to release a summary of misconduct findings for officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Pantaleo placed Garner, an unarmed black man, in a chokehold that is banned by the New York City Police Department as officers tried to question him about selling loose cigarettes illegally. Garner's death, which was ruled a homicide by the city's medical examiner, sparked nationwide protests amid a renewed debate over the treatment of minorities by police.
A grand jury in Staten Island, the New York City borough where Garner's death occurred, declined to indict Pantaleo, however.
The lower court granted a freedom of information request made by the Legal Aid Society, which sought complaints against Pantaleo that had been substantiated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent watchdog agency.
The appeals court, however, found that serious threats targeting Pantaleo had led the officer and his family to be placed under round-the-clock police protection, and that the threats "demonstrate that disclosure carries a 'substantial and realistic potential' for harm."
The reversal was applauded by the police union, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association of the City of New York.
"The release of police officers' personnel files poses a grave safety risk for police officers and their families. Now that these important protections have been reaffirmed, they need to be vigorously enforced," PBA President Patrick Lynch said in a statement.
The New York City Law Department, which filed the appeal, said it is pressing to change laws for greater transparency in the police disciplinary process.
"Today's decisions make clear that we must adhere to the law as it currently exists," said spokesman Austin Finan.
Tina Luongo, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, said the organization is pursuing a broader lawsuit seeking the disclosure of all NYPD disciplinary summaries from the past five years and is "confident" it will prevail in that case.
Pantaleo's lawyer, Mitchell Garber, declined comment.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Steve Orlofsky)