MANHATTAN (CN) – Heeding a judge’s recent recommendation, the commissioner of the New York City Police Department announced Monday afternoon that he will fire the police officer who killed Eric Garner in a chokehold five years ago.
“It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer,” Commissioner James O’Neill said at a press conference.
Pantaleo, 34, had stayed on the force – stripped of his badge and gun but still reportedly collecting up to $120,000 per year – while stationed to desk duty in the Staten Island borough command since Garner’s killing on July 17, 2014.
Though he never faced criminal charges over the incident, Pantaleo went on trial this spring before the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an internal disciplinary body within the NYPD.
Those proceedings ended with NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado finding Pantaleo guilty on Aug. 2 of one count of recklessly causing physical injury and not guilty of a count of strangulation with intent to impede breathing.
O’Neill said this afternoon that he agreed with her finding, but “that has certainly not made it an easy decision.”
“In carrying out the court’s verdict in this case, I take no pleasure,” O’Neill said, adding that “today is a day of reckoning but can also be a day of reconciliation.”
Garner was killed outside the Staten Island ferry as police tried to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. A bystander’s footage of the altercation captured Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” which the 43-year-old father had gasped repeatedly as Pantaleo attempted to subdue him with an arm across Garner’s windpipe.
“I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes,” O’Neill said. “And had I made those mistakes, I would have wished I had used the arrival of backup officers to give the situation more time to make that arrest. And I would have wished I released my grip before it became a chokehold.
“Every time I watch that video, I say to myself, as probably all of you do, to Mr. Garner, ‘don’t do it; comply.’ Officer Pantaleo, ‘Don’t do it.’ … but none of us can take back our decisions,” O’Neill added. “Most especially when they lead to the death of another human being.”
Garner had weighed 395 pounds before his death and also suffered from numerous health ailments, including asthma and diabetes. His heart was nearly double the size of a person in good health, traits that the commissioner alluded to in this afternoon’s statement.
“It is unlikely that Mr. Garner though he was in such poor health that a brief struggle with the police would cause his death,” O’Neill said. “He should have decided against resisting arrest, but a man with a family lost his life, and that is an irreversible tragedy.
“And a hardworking police officer with a family — a man who took this job to do good, to make a difference in his home community — has now lost his chosen career,” O’Neill continued. “And that is a different kind of tragedy. In this case the unintended consequence of Mr. Garner’s death must have a consequence of its own.”
Maldonado had emphasized in her 46-page opinion that evidence was “overwhelming” that Pantaleo used a chokehold prohibited by the 2014 Patrol Guide for police officers.
“The most compelling evidence of this violation is the cell phone video that captured respondent’s forearm wrapped around Mr. Garner’s neck, in conjunction with the uncontested autopsy findings that there was fresh hemorrhaging across multiple layers of Mr. Garner’s neck muscles which was caused by the application of pressure to his neck,” Maldonado wrote.
“In sum, the preponderance of the credible evidence established that Respondent consciously disregarded the well-delineated risks of a strictly prohibited chokehold that he was trained never to employ,” Maldonado wrote. “As such, I find that respondent’s conduct was reckless.”
Pantaleo will not receive his 13-year vested pension benefits, but he will get back the contributions he had made over his years on with the NYPD, O’Neill told reporters during the press conference.
New York’s Attorney General James, who pushed for outfitting the entire NYPD with body cameras while she was New York City’s public advocate, pledged to continue to fight to fix the broken criminal justice system in Garner’s memory.
“While we will never be able to change the events that transpired or bring Mr. Garner back, today, some semblance of justice is finally being served,” James said Monday on news of Pantaleo’s firing.
The New York Civil Liberties Union celebrated the announcement of Pantaleo’s firing as incremental victory in their larger goal of reforming the city’s policing tactics.
“While today’s decision will not bring Eric Garner back to life or erase the pain felt by his family, it affirms what we all know: Pantaleo used excessive force on an unarmed black man and is not fit to serve as a police officer,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said Monday. “While this is some measure of long-overdue relief, we have a long way to go to achieve true police accountability. The NYPD must take further steps to rebuild trust between officers and the communities they serve, put an end to police brutality against communities of color, and ensure what happened to Eric Garner will never happen again.”
The U.S. Department of Justice announced last month that it would not charge Pantaleo with a violation of Garner’s civil rights as the city awaited Maldonado’s verdict.
Immediately following O’Neill’s announcement, iconic civil rights activist Al Sharpton held a press conference with members of Garner’s family at the National Action Network House of Justice headquarters in Harlem.
“We’re relieved but we’re not celebratory,” said Sharpton, who attended several days of the CCRB trial. “There’s nothing to celebrate here.”
Complaining that the NYPD’s decision arrived “five years too late,” Sharpton noted that this time has been “five years of pain and misery that will never end for this family.”
Meanwhile downtown, O’Neill’s decision sparked outrage with the New York City’s Police Benevolent Association union for rank-and-file officers fumed.
“He has chosen to cringe in fear of the anti-police extremists, rather than standing up for New Yorkers who want a functioning police department, with cops who are empowered to protect them and their families,” PBA President Patrick Lynch said in a statement immediately following O’Neill’s announcement. “With this decision, Commissioner O’Neill has opened the door for politicians to dictate the outcome of every single NYPD disciplinary proceeding, without any regard for the facts of the case or police officers’ due process rights. He will wake up tomorrow to discover that the cop-haters are still not satisfied, but it will be too late. The damage is already done.”
Sharpton called on the police to investigate other officers who had been involved in Garner’s chokehold death.