After five years of investigations and protests, the New York City Police Department fired an officer involved in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, the black man whose dying gasps of “I can’t breathe” gave voice to a national debate over race and police use of force.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill said Monday he fired Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, based on a recent recommendation of a department disciplinary judge.
“There are absolutely no victors here today,” said O’Neill, calling it a difficult decision that he made “unaffected by public opinions” in the widely debated case.
Pantaleo had been on desk duty since he was seen in widely viewed cellphone videos using a banned chokehold on Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk during an attempted arrest. Police believed Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Pantaleo’s termination is effective immediately and he will not receive a pension, O’Neill said.
Rosemarie Maldonado, a deputy police commissioner who oversaw disciplinary hearings involving the fatal 2014 incident, recommended last month that Pantaleo be let go.
Maldonado, in a report the New York Times obtained in recent days, said she questioned the truthfulness of Pantaleo’s testimony in the hearings.
It was also found that while the technique Pantaleo applied was justifiable when he was pinned against a glass window, it was “reckless” once the officer and suspect ended up on the ground on the sidewalk.
In the end, O’Neill said, he could not overlook that Pantaleo applied the chokehold despite having received sufficient police training that such a hold was barred, resulting in what he called a tragedy.
“Justice has been done,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a separate news conference.
“I hope today brings some small measure of closure,” for Garner’s family, said de Blasio, who is also a Democratic presidential candidate.
Medical experts have determined Garner’s death was a homicide induced by “compression of neck, compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”
Pantaleo’s lawyers have argued he did not use a chokehold, but instead used an authorized “seatbelt” hold that slipped as Garner struggled, and that the officer did not cause Garner’s death.
Not a political decision: O’Neill
In a bystander’s video, it appeared that Pantaleo initially tried to use two approved restraint tactics on Garner, who was much larger at 6-foot-2 and about 400 pounds, but ended up wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck for about seven seconds as they struggled against a glass storefront window and fell to the sidewalk.
The footage showed Garner, who was 43 at the time, crying out, “I can’t breathe,” at least 11 times before he fell unconscious. The medical examiner’s office said a chokehold contributed to Garner’s death.
O’Neill rejected a question from a reporter whether pressure from New York City political leaders factored into the outcome.
We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job.– Pat Lynch, Police Benevolent Assoc. president
“This was my decision,” he insisted, adding that he expected it to be an unpopular result with the rank-and-file and police union leadership.
O’Neill said at multiple points during the news conference that it was regrettable that Garner resisted arrested, and he said that for several moments Pantaleo acted appropriately in a “tense and rapidly evolving situation.”
“I may have made similar mistakes,” O’Neill said of Pantaleo’s actions.
Despite O’Neill’s empathy for the officer, Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, blasted O’Neill, saying he has chosen “to cringe in fear of the anti-police extremists.”
“We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job,” said Lynch.
Pantaleo himself has not publicly discussed the arrest, and his whereabouts Monday were unclear.
“He’s away now, and I told him to stay away,” Stuart London, Pantaleo’s lawyer, told reporters, without elaborating. Pantaleo would challenge his firing, London said. “Obviously, he is disappointed and upset but has a lot of strength.”
Civil payout, no criminal charges
O’Neill emphasized that since the incident, NYPD officers have undergone extensive retraining on de-escalation techniques and the proper use of physical force.
Garner’s death came at a time of growing public outcry over police killings of unarmed black men that sparked the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Just weeks later, protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. And on Dec. 20, 2014, a man posted on Instagram about the deaths of Garner and Brown before fatally shooting two New York City police officers to death. The man, Ismaaiyl Tinsley, then committed suicide.
A New York grand jury declined to charge Pantaleo, and federal prosecutors were disinclined to do so as well, letting a deadline to file charges lapse last month.
A lengthy Department of Justice review of the incident did not reach a conclusive determination of whether Pantaleo willfully committed misconduct, an “essential element” necessary to bring federal charges.
In 2015, New York City paid a $5.9 million US settlement to Garner’s family to avoid a civil lawsuit.
Garner’s family has been frustrated that Pantaleo never faced prosecution, and says other officers and supervisors involved in the arrest should also be punished.
“Pantaleo, you may have lost your job, but I lost a son,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, told reporters outside the police department’s headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Emerald Garner, his daughter, thanked O’Neill for coming to the decision he did, but said “the fight is not over.”
Garner said she hoped the other officers who helped pinned Garner down would receive appropriate discipline, and that she would help advocate for legislation that limits officer use of force.
“I don’t want another Eric Garner,” she said.