Firing Recommended for Officer Who Killed Eric Garner

MANHATTAN (CN) – An administrative board recommended immediate dismissal Friday for the Staten Island officer whose chokehold killing of Eric Garner helped spur the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement.

“Today’s decision confirms what the Civilian Complaint Review Board always has maintained: Officer Daniel Pantaleo committed misconduct on July 17, 2014, and his actions caused the death of Eric Garner,” said Fred Davie, who chairs the board, in statement just before noon.

“The evidence the CCRB’s prosecutors brought forth at trial was more than sufficient to prove that Pantaleo is unfit to serve,” Davie added.

Friday’s recommendation to fire Pantaleo comes a month and half after the board’s Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado held a three-week trial of Pantaleo, 34, at police headquarters.

NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo leaves his Staten Island house on May 13, 2019, to attend an administrative trial at police headquarters for his killing of Eric Garner five years earlier. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

NYPD spokesman Phillip Walzak announced this afternoon that the department suspended Pantaleo, “effective today, as is the longstanding practice in these matters when the recommendation is termination.”

After a copy of the report is finalized with input from the CCRB and Pantaleo’s defense, Commissioner James O’Neill will announce his decision later this month, Walzak added.

During a press conference Friday afternoon at the Manhattan headquarters of the Police Benevolent Association, Pantaleo’s attorney Stuart London told reporters that the officer has no plans to resign ahead of Commissioner O’Neill’s decision.

“At this point we’re going full steam ahead,” London said, “He’s done nothing wrong, he’s committed no misconduct, there’s no reason for him to do anything other than protect all of his rights.”

Replies to Friday’s draft decision are due by Aug. 14, and London said that defense can still appeal.

At the same press conference, PBA president Pat Lynch issued a seething statement that accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of throwing Pantaleo under the bus to boost his 2020 election profile. Earlier this week at a nationally televised Democratic presidential debate, protesters heckled  de Blasio with calls to “Fire Pantaleo.” De Blasio has maintained, when pressed on his position, that he must respect due process and will defer to Commissioner O’Neill.

Garner’s family marked the five-year anniversary of his death only weeks earlier. That date was also the deadline under the statute of limitations for the Department of Justice to announce if it would bring any federal civil rights charges against Pantaleo.

Although the New York City medical examiner ruled the cause of Garner’s 2014 death a homicide, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo on criminal charges, triggering massive protests over the trend of white police officers facing scant consequences for causing the deaths of unarmed suspects.

The Justice Department likewise announced last month that it would not bring charges. 

As was the case in a number of such deaths at the time, Garner was black. “I can’t breathe,” his anguished last words recorded on a bystander’s phone, became a rallying cry for the nascent Black Lives Matter protest movement.

Stuart London stands to the right of PBA President Pat Lynch (center) at a press conference Friday after a judge for the New York City Police Department recommended dismissal Friday for Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who killed an unarmed Eric Garner in 2014. (Photo by JOSH RUSSELL, Courthouse News Service)

In the intervening years, Pantaleo has stayed on the force, reportedly collecting up to $120,000 per year while stripped of his badge and gun, stationed to desk duty in the Staten Island borough command.

Pantaleo’s trial before the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent city agency in charge of investigating complaints about police abuse, lasted for 25 days and included seven hearings. Deputy Chief Prosecutor Suzanne D. O’Hare led the case.

The PBA’s Lynch criticized Judge Maldonado on Friday for how she characterized the behavior of an officer dealing with a noncompliant suspect.

“Saying that a police officer being called by the public, stopping someone that’s resisting arrest and you’re going through a plate-glass window,” Lynch said. “To say that’s reckless, in that 7 seconds, is absolutely wrong. It’s a misunderstanding of the law. If she re-evaluates that part, she has to acquit this police officer.”

Until a final decision is reached, the pressure is on. “The only hope for justice now lies with Police Commissioner O’Neill,” Lynch said. “He knows the message that this decision sends to every cop: we are expendable, and we cannot expect any support from the city we protect. He knows that if he affirms this horrendous decision, he will lose his police department.”

While ostensibly a public trial, the hearings held at NYPD headquarters in lower Manhattan lacked many aspects of transparency expected in other courts: the CCRB did make public transcripts, filings and recordings available or provide an overflow room for the press and the public. 

Under Section 50-a of New York state Civil Rights Law, the board’s findings of misconduct could have been blocked from public disclosure. The law says all “personnel records used to evaluate performance towards continued employment or promotion” for police officers, firefighters and correction officers are “confidential and not subject to inspection or review” except by court order.

Throughout the CCRB trial, Pantaleo’s police union defense attorneys, London and John Tynan with the firm Worth, Longworth & London, repeatedly characterized Garner as unhealthy and irate as he resisted officers’ attempt to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes outside the Staten Island Ferry in July 2014.

Eric Garner, right, poses with his children during a family outing in this undated photo. Federal prosecutors opted last month not to bring civil rights charges against New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner’s 2014 chokehold death. (AP Photo/Family photo via National Action Network, File)

Bystander-shot footage of the arrest shows Garner struggling to breathe under Pantaleo’s grip after repeatedly gasping the words “I can’t breathe.” Defense attorney Stuart London insisted at the trial, however, that Pantaleo had been applying a department-approved “seat-belt hold” technique.

Undercutting that position, NYPD Inspector Richard Dee testified the maneuvering he saw in the cellphone video of Garner’s arrest “meets the definition of a chokehold.”

During the first week of the CCRB trial, Floriana Persechino, the New York City medical examiner who performed Garner’s autopsy, testified that Pantaleo’s chokehold set into motion “a lethal sequence of events.” Given Garner’s fragile health, however, she said even a bear hug could’ve hastened the death.

Persechino testified that hemorrhaging in Garner’s neck muscles was indicative of a chokehold that set off an asthma attack and led to him going into cardiac arrest following a confrontation with the police officer. 

Persechino said video of the confrontation only helped confirm her findings that the officer had wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck, obstructing his breathing.

In spite of his health conditions –  asthma, diabetes and weighing 395 pounds – Persechino testified Garner didn’t appear in distress when seen on security video crossing a street about an hour prior to the arrest.

Pantaleo’s lawyers called Michael Graham, a St. Louis medical examiner, for testimony that refuted claims by NYC’s medical examiner’s office.

Graham asserted on the stand that Garner died from heart problems “exacerbated by his interaction with law enforcement.”

Gwen Carr, left, mother of chokehold victim Eric Garner, joins a July 17, 2019, rally in Federal Plaza to protest the decision by federal prosecutors not to bring civil rights charges against New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the 2014 chokehold death. The protest marks the five-year anniversary of Garner’s killing. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The Garner trial is not the first time that Graham proffered his independent analysis on autopsy reports to support the defense of a white police officer accused killing an unarmed black man. In October 2014, Graham reviewed the autopsy report of Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier that year.

In a report published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Graham claimed that Brown’s autopsy report supported Wilson’s account that he had first shot Brown when Brown reached for Wilson’s gun during a struggle by his squad car. The following month, a grand jury decided that there was not enough probable cause to indict Wilson in the shooting death of Brown, sparking turbulent unrest overnight in Ferguson.

After the CCRB trial concluded, Len Levitt, author of “NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Country’s Greatest Police Force,” called Pantaleo “a dead man walking” because of the pressure of the political climate under Mayor de Blasio, who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“A cultural revolution with a leftward tilt is afoot in New York City, where rules and values of the past have been upended,” Levitt wrote in a blog post for his website NYPD Confidential.  

“Is there any doubt that the mayor wants Pantaleo fired? Is there any doubt that O’Neill will comply?” the longtime police reporter exclaimed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes, head of the civil rights division of the federal prosecutors’ office in Brooklyn, attended one day of the CCRB trial.

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