The New York City police officer who wrestled Eric Garner to the ground as the 43-year-old father of six repeatedly gasped “I can’t breathe” was suspended Friday, after a judge recommended he permanently lose his job over the controversial death, authorities said.
The case sparked national outrage after officer Daniel Pantaleo was captured on video holding Garner down in an alleged chokehold during an attempted arrest in Staten Island, N.Y. on July 17, 2014. Garner, who refused to be handcuffed after being accused of illegally selling loose cigarettes, died after saying he couldn’t breathe 11 times as officers forced him to the pavement. His final words became a rallying cry across the U.S. for advocates of police reform amid growing tensions over law enforcement killings of unarmed black men and continue to have reverberating effects on the 2020 presidential election.
Following an administrative judge’s verdict after Pantaleo’s departmental disciplinary trial, the NYPD is expected to announce this month whether Pantaleo will be fired. It’s the worst punishment the officer faces after a grand jury and federal prosecutors both declined to bring charges against him — decisions that outraged Garner’s family and supporters. “Eric is crying from heaven,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said at a news conference in May at the start of Pantaleo’s trial.
Patrick Lynch, president of the city’s police union, slammed the judge’s recommendation as “pure political insanity,” warning the commissioner that he will “lose his police department” if he fires Pantaleo. “He knows the message that this decision sends to every cop,” Lynch said in a statement. “We are expendable, and we cannot expect any support from the city we protect.”
As the city and nation brace for the police department’s highly anticipated decision, here’s what to know about the case.
What has happened to Daniel Pantaleo so far?
Before his suspension, Pantaleo had been on desk duty, collecting a salary of at least $98,000 a year. The suspension means he will go without pay for a month, which is customary when a departmental disciplinary trial results in a recommendation of termination, the NYPD said in a statement.
While an administrative judge recommended Pantaleo be fired, Police Commissioner James O’Neill has the final word on the officer’s fate. The commissioner’s decision could come within the next two weeks, after Pantaleo’s lawyer has submitted a response, according to the Associated Press.
Pantaleo, who has denied using excessive force in Garner’s case, was never charged in the death. In 2014, a grand jury found “no reasonable cause” to indict him on criminal charges. And last month, federal prosecutors announced they would not bring civil rights charges against him. While calling Garner’s death a tragedy, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, Richard Donoghue, said the evidence “does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Pantaleo acted in willful violation of federal law.”
Nationwide, police officers are rarely indicted for killing civilians, whether accidentally or intentionally.
What happened in the Garner case so far?
In 2014, the New York City medical examiner’s office said Garner’s death was a homicide caused by neck compressions from an apparent chokehold. During Pantaleo’s disciplinary trial in May, the doctor who conducted Garner’s autopsy testified that the force of the chokehold and chest compressions caused a “lethal cascade” of events that ended in a fatal asthma attack, according to the New York Times.
The Garner family settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the city for $5.9 million in 2015, but have never stopped seeking justice. On Friday, before the judge rendered a verdict, Esaw Garner Snipes, Garner’s widow, called for “civil unrest” if the recommendation was not for the officer’s termination. “We’re not going to stop,” she said in an interview with CNN. A petition the family started calling for Pantaleo’s termination has received more than 100,000 signatures.
Why has New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio come under fire for his role in the case?
Garner’s family and supporters have long criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is currently running for president, for how he handled the case and for failing to use his apparent powers as the city’s leader to ensure Pantaleo was fired. At Wednesday’s live and nationally televised Democratic debate in Detroit, protesters heckled de Blasio to fire the cop, which disrupted the event and forced the mayor to address the case.
“I know the Garner family. They’ve gone through extraordinary pain,” he said. “They are waiting for justice and are going to get justice. There’s finally going to be justice. I have confidence in that, in the next 30 days, in New York.”
The mayor also said the Justice Department’s recent decision not to pursue charges was “an injustice of the highest order,” but declined to say whether Pantaleo should be fired especially before knowing the police commissioner’s determination. “I’m not going to venture personal opinions,” de Blasio said, according to the Associated Press. “When you’re the steward of the entire city, this is not about personal opinions.”
At a news conference Friday, which was also briefly interrupted by hecklers, the mayor mostly echoed his remarks from the debate, but added he believes that the justice system is now working after the judge’s recommendation. “Until today, the Garner family has been failed by this entire process,” he said. “I hope that this will now bring the Garner family a sense of closure and the beginning of peace.”
When asked whether he has the power to order Pantaleo’s termination, de Blasio said “there has to be due process.”