New York City’s police commissioner has fired a police officer involved in thePolice Commissioner James O’Neill made the announcement Monday afternoon.
O’Neill had been deliberating whether to accept a disciplinary judge’s recommendation that Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, be fired for using a banned chokehold on Eric Garner. Garner’s dying words of “I can’t breathe” became a flash point in a national debate over race and police use of force.
Garner’s death came at a time of a 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, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. And later in 2014, a man angry about the Garner and Brown cases shot two New York City police officers to death in their cruiser in retribution.
Speaking Monday, community activists who have long called on city leaders to fire Pantaleo said the decision was five years overdue. Garner’s mother Gwen Carr, who has led a grassroots movement of advocates seeking justice in her son’s death, addressed the officer directly, saying: “Pantaleo, you may have lost your job, but I lost a son.”
Carr said the family wants to see action taken against the other officers who were present during Garner’s fatal arrest.
Eric Garner’s daughter Emerald Snipes Garner said Monday she wanted to thank O’Neill “for doing the right thing” in firing Pantaleo. But she said her family’s fight for justice “is not over.” The family is calling for an “Eric Garner Law” passed that would make police chokeholds illegal.
Pantaleo’s lawyer has said the officer didn’t mean to hurt Garner and insisted he did not use the banned chokehold. But in a disciplinary recommendation obtained by the New York Times, NYPD administrative judge Rosemarie Maldonado said video of the fatal encounter and autopsy results provided “overwhelming” evidence that Pantaleo used the banned maneuver. In the recommendation that followed a recent administrative trial, she reportedly found Pantaleo was “untruthful” during questioning when he denied using the chokehold.
According to the Times, Maldonado wrote that Pantaleo’s “use of a chokehold fell so far short of objective reasonableness that this tribunal found it to be reckless — a gross deviation from the standard of conduct established for a New York City police officer.”
O’Neill said he agreed with Maldonado’s recommendation to fire Pantaleo. He said it was clear that Pantaleo “can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”
“None of us can take back our decisions,” O’Neill said, “especially when they lead to the death of another human being.”
A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo. Federal authorities announced last month they would not bring civil rights charges.
New York City’s mayor had declined to say whether he believed Pantaleo should lose his job but had been promising “justice” to the slain man’s family. Speaking Monday, Bill de Blasio said, “justice has been done.” He blasted the U.S. Department of Justice for being “absent and unwilling to act,” but said the NYPD administrative trial was an impartial and fair process.
O’Neill said his department had been awaiting an investigation by the Justice Department to launch disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo, but went ahead with the internal process when the federal investigation stretched on for years.
“Today will not bring Eric Garner back, but I hope it brings some small measure of peace and closure to the Garner family,” de Blasio said.
Questions about the handling of the case have dogged de Blasio during his run for president, with some protesters at a recent debate in Detroit chanting,
In a statement, New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch said O’Neill “has chosen politics and his own self-interest over the police officers he claims to lead.”
Lynch urged police officers to “proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job.”
“Now it is time for every police officer in this city to make their own choice,” he said in a statement. “We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.”
Speaking Monday, Lynch called for a no-confidence vote in the mayor and the police commissioner.
At the disciplinary trial at New York Police Department headquarters, Pantaleo’s lawyers argued he used an approved “seat belt” technique to subdue Garner, who refused to be handcuffed after officers accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes.
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 said he arrived at his conclusion “unaffected by public opinion demanding one outcome over another.” He cited his own experience as a police officer, noting the difficult job officers face, and said Garner was clearly resisting arrest. But he said Maldonado found that Pantaleo’s training should have made him well aware of the dangers chokeholds face, and that Pantaleo could have chosen a less-lethal alternative to control Garner, but did not.
“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,” said O’Neill. “But an officer’s choices and actions, even made under extreme pressure, matter.”
Attorney Stuart London told reporters Monday that Pantaleo intends to sue O’Neill for his job back. London said Pantaleo had been promised a pension for his 13 years but that police brass later reneged on those assurances.