By David Brand and Noah Goldberg
The NYPD officer who used a banned chokehold that led to the death of Eric Garner was fired Monday, five years after Garner’s final words — “I can’t breathe” — fueled the nationwide #BlackLivesMatter movement and spurred calls for police accountability.
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill affirmed an administrative judge’s July recommendation to fire Officer Daniel Pantaleo for using a prohibited chokehold to take Garner to the ground while arresting the Staten Island resident in July 2014. The termination became effective immediately.
“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 said at a press conference at police headquarters in Manhattan.
The death of Garner, who is black, at the hands of Pantaleo, who is white, was one of several high-profile incidents that stoked a movement to end aggressive enforcement and overpolicing in communities of color. It also prompted the NYPD to train officers in deescalation tactics.
O’Neill acknowledged the concerns of the NYPD’s rank-and-file. “If I was still a cop I’d probably be mad at me — I would — for not looking out for us,” O’Neill said.
He also said Garner should not have resisted arrest and that he may have made “similar mistakes” if he were in Pantaleo’s situation.
“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.’”
A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in 2014, but the case dragged on for five years as the Department of Justice weighed bringing a civil rights case against him. The DOJ decided not to charge Pantaleo last month, on the eve of the five-year anniversary of Garner’s death.
That decision left the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent agency that handles claims of NYPD officer abuse and misconduct, as the last means of holding Pantaleo accountable for Garner’s death.
CCRB Chairperson Fred Davie said O’Neill’s decision was “heartening,” but he criticized the delay in achieving “some element of justice.”
“Make no mistake: This process took entirely too long,” Davie said. “And the tragic reality is that neither a verdict from a judge nor a decision by a police commissioner can reverse what happened on July 17, 2014.”
O’Neill said he too was frustrated by the slow pace of the process and that the NYPD will in the future have “more forceful discussions with the other agencies that are investigating” future agencies to ensure the case does not “drag on.”
“Members of the public in general — and Mr Garner’s family in particular — had grown understandably impatient,” O’Neill said. “What I learned is that we wouldn’t let this linger for five years. It’s too long,” he added. “It’s unfair to the family. It’s unfair to everybody involved in this case.”
Pantaleo will lose his pension but is entitled to the money he invested in the account during his 13-year career. He has been on desk duty since Garner’s death. Pantaleo can appeal the decision under state civil service law.
O’Neill said Monday that he had not yet spoken with Pantaleo or with Garner’s family. Asked whether or not he would speak with Pantaleo, O’Neill said, “probably not.” The NYPD has reached out to the Garner family, but has not heard back yet, O’Neill said.
Garner’s mother Gwen Carr, an advocate for police accountability, did not immediately respond to phone calls from the Eagle.
“This is a tragedy for the Garner family. I fully understand that,” O’Neill said when asked by the Eagle what he would say to the Garner family. “Mr. Garner was somebody’s son and somebody’s dad. Everybody in the NYPD understands that.”
Queens leaders weighed in on Pantaleo’s termination in the wake of O’Neill’s decision.
“This action brings closure to a festering wound and paves a path forward for trust, respect for civil rights and increased public safety,” said Councilmember Donovan Richards, chair of the Committee on Public Safety.
“We are confident that this decision will serve as a model of law enforcement leadership, and will draw attention to the importance of continuing education and training in policing in every police department in this country,” Richards added.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, the Democratic nominee for Queens District Attorney, said earlier this month that she thought Pantaleo should be fired. But her likely Republican opponent, attorney and former cop Joe Murray, “wholeheartedly disagreed” with O’Neill’s decision. He said Garner’s refusal to submit to an arrest compelled Pantaleo to use force.
“What the video clearly showed was a textbook application of minimal physical force by professional police officers who displayed no malice or contempt of any kind towards Mr. Garner,” Murray said.
Former CCRB Director Mina Malik oversaw the early days of the investigation into Pantaleo and said O’Neill made the “right decision given the issue at hand and the overwhelming evidence presented by the CCRB.”
"The Garner family and our city have finally gotten some semblance of justice after more than five long years,” said Malik, who ran for Queens district attorney earlier this year. “Unfortunately, this decision won't bring back Eric Garner and doesn't change the fact that this remains one of our city's greatest tragedies in policing."