The New York police officer accused of fatally choking Eric Garner in 2014 has been fired and will not receive his NYPD pension, Commissioner James O’Neill said Monday.
“It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City Police officer,” he said.
Officer Pantaleo was found guilty in a disciplinary trial earlier this month of using a chokehold on Garner, the New York man whose final words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The departmental administrative judge officially recommended Pantaleo be fired. O’Neill, an officer for 34 years, cited that recommendation repeatedly in his announcement on Monday, but he said the decision to terminate Pantaleo was still not easy.
“Had I been in (Pantaleo’s) situation, I may have made similar mistakes,” he said.
O’Neill said contributions Pantaleo has already made toward his pension will be returned to him. O’Neill said Pantaleo was not informed of his dismissal ahead of time and that he had no plans to speak with him.
Pantaleo had been suspended pending the commissioner’s decision, the NYPD spokesman said.
The decision comes more than five years after police tried to arrest the 43-year-old father of six, who was allegedly selling loose cigarettes illegally on Staten Island. In video of the arrest, Pantaleo can be seen wrapping one arm around Garner’s shoulder and the other around his neck before jerking him back and pulling him to the ground.
As Pantaleo forces Garner’s head into the sidewalk, Garner could be heard saying “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” He died shortly afterward.
Garner’s death, three weeks before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, started the resurgence of police accountability and brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, Rev. Al Sharpton said last month.
The “I can’t breathe” phrase reflected the suffocating frustration with what activists said was a lack of police accountability after police killings of unarmed African Americans. The phrase was widely heard and seen at protests, and NBA stars like LeBron James bore the message on T-shirts in support of the cause.
Reaction to the decision
O’Neill said he faced pressure from many sides in this decision, and he admitted that if he were still an officer, he would probably not be happy.
“I know that many will disagree with this decision, and that is their right,” he said. “There are absolutely no victors here today. Not the Garner family, not the community at large, and certainly not the courageous men and women of the police department who put their own lives on the line every single day in service to the people of this great city. Today is a day of reckoning, but can also be a day of reconciliation.”
The New York City Police Benevolent Association, the union representing NYPD officers, slammed the firing and said O’Neill had chosen politics and self-interest over the police officers.
“The damage is already done. The NYPD will remain rudderless and frozen, and Commissioner O’Neill will never be able to bring it back. Now it is time for every (police officer) in this city to make their own choice,” President Patrick J. Lynch said. “We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job.”
Pantaleo’s attorney, Stu London, said that Pantaleo was “disappointed” and “upset,” but said that they planned to appeal the decision.
But others said Pantaleo’s firing was a long time coming. Sharpton, speaking with members of Garner’s family, said the firing was “appropriate and deserving.”
“We are relieved but we are not celebratory. There’s nothing to celebrate because Pantaleo will go home a terminated man, but this family had to go to a funeral,” said Sharpton, the longtime political and civil rights activist.
Garner’s daughter Emerald thanked O’Neill for making the decision and promised to continue fighting for justice so that this doesn’t happen again.
“I truly and sincerely thank you for firing the officer,” she said. “Regardless of however you came up to your decision, you finally made a decision that should have been made five years ago.”
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said during a rally Monday that she too would continue fighting for her son.
“We have other officers that we have to go after. You have heard the names. We know the wrongdoing that they have done,” Carr said, referring to other officers at the scene when Eric Garner died. “So I would like the press to put it out there, show the pictures, say the names, do the roll call because they all need to lose their jobs.”
Carr also said that while Pantaleo may have lost a job, she lost her son. “You cannot replace that. You can get another job,” she said.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he hoped the decision would give the family closure.
“Today we have finally seen justice done,” he said. “Today we saw the NYPD’s own disciplinary process act fairly and impartially.”
Judge found “reckless” actions
The departmental disciplinary trial focused on whether Pantaleo used a department-banned chokehold in the arrest.
Pantaleo denied that he used the maneuver, but Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado ruled that a chokehold triggered a series of events that culminated with Garner’s death, according to the report, which CNN obtained from a source familiar with the matter.
“Here, (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,” Maldonado wrote. “Moreover, (Pantaleo’s) glaring dereliction of responsibility precipitated a tragic outcome.”
Still, Pantaleo was found not guilty of restricting Garner’s breathing, a charge that had more to do with Pantaleo’s intent, the judge wrote.
During the departmental trial, lawyers for Pantaleo argued that Garner’s neck was in the crook of his elbow and there was no pressure on his windpipe but rather on the sides of his neck, constituting a sleeper hold. But Maldonado ruled that while he was on top of Garner, he could have used a different tactic not banned by the NYPD.
Maldonado felt Pantaleo’s use of the move was reckless, writing that Pantaleo’s “egregious misconduct led to the deadly consequences his training anticipated and which the prohibition was designed to prevent.”
The report concluded with a recommendation of termination.
“Accordingly, this tribunal finds that there is only one appropriate penalty for the grave misconduct that yielded an equally grave result – respondent can no longer remain a New York City police officer,” she wrote.
On Monday, O’Neill said he agreed with the content of her decision in announcing the firing.
Despite the disciplinary trial, Pantaleo has avoided criminal charges in the death. A grand jury in New York declined to indict the officer in 2014, and the city of New York settled with Garner’s estate for $5.9 million in 2015. The Justice Department declined to bring federal civil rights charges last month.