Eric Garner’s mother and other police reform advocates have begun questioning New York Police Department officers in court as part of a judicial inquiry on issues surrounding her son’s death, pressing them on topics ranging from erroneously charging Garner with felony cigarette tax evasion to texting a colleague shortly after Garner’s death that, “It’s not a big deal.”
Garner died in 2014 after being placed in an unauthorized chokehold by then-police officer Daniel Pantaleo and Garner’s final words – “I can’t breathe” – were captured on video and have become a rallying cry for police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement. During a 2019 departmental trial, a NYPD judge ruled that the chokehold led to a cascade of events that ended with Garner’s death and recommended that Pantaleo be fired. He was fired in August of that year.
In the more than seven years since her son’s death, Gwen Carr has pushed to find out the identities of other NYPD members who played a role in his death or made decisions surrounding his case, and if they were investigated or disciplined by the police department or the city.
On Monday, Carr and other petitioners began their summary judicial inquiry – a seldom used legal process for members of the public to look into alleged neglect of duty by public officials in New York City, attorney Alvin Bragg said in his opening remarks on behalf of Carr and other petitioners. Bragg is an attorney with Communities United for Police Reform and a professor at New York Law School’s Racial Justice Project.
“The petitioners have alleged that the investigations and discipline were totally insufficient, inadequate and shrouded in secrecy and did not result in appropriate accountability and we’ll be exploring that throughout the hearing,” Bragg said.
New York Supreme Court Judge Erika Edwards reiterated that she will not be making decisions about charging anyone at the end of the inquiry, and that questioning will focus on the stop, the arrest and use of force against Garner by officers other than Pantaleo; the filing of official documents around his arrest; the leaking of his arrest history and medical conditions to journalists; as well as allegations Garner did not receive adequate medical care at the scene.
“Nobody will be charged or found liable in any way – not what this proceeding is about – it’s about transparency, it’s about creating a record, it’s about getting to the bottom of it, it’s about getting to the truth, it’s about letting the public better understand what happened and didn’t happen seven years ago and beyond that during the process for the investigations that were conducted,” Edwards said.
‘It’s not a big deal’
The first witness, NYPD Lt. Christopher Bannon, testified that he met with officials at NYPD headquarters in Manhattan to address “quality of life issues” four months before Garner was killed in his precinct.
An attorney for petitioners pulled up text messages between Bannon and an officer who was on scene when Garner was killed.
“He’s most likely doa (dead on arrival). I’m just waiting for them to pronounce him. He has no pulse,” one text to Bannon read.
“Ok, keep me posted, I’m still here,” Bannon wrote in one text. “Not a big deal, we were effecting a lawf(ul) arrest.”
Bannon testified that he feels any death is tragic and that he sent the text to the NYPD officer to put his “mind at ease.”
“I’ve seen way too many people injure themselves, so this was more of a mindset to me, a common sense mindset to me, as far as trying to prevent them from going down that road and potentially injuring themselves,” he said.
Carr said she had seen the text message exchange at the NYPD disciplinary trial for Pantaleo in 2019.
“That was a real slap in the face. For you to say that there is not a big deal and my son laid dead on the ground,” Carr said during a news conference Monday.
“There was no sympathy, no empathy; it was just business as usual. Eric’s life doesn’t mean anything to him. He was just another person that one of his officers had killed.”
NYPD Officer Justin D’Amico, who was on scene when Garner was killed, testified that he made the decision to arrest Garner, and that in the hours after his death, he filled out an arrest form where he charged Garner with charges including felony cigarette tax evasion.
The state law D’Amico cited in his report would require someone to possess at least 10,000 cigarettes for the purpose of selling them. But, in his report, D’Amico wrote Garner had been in possession of “5 packs” of cigarettes.
“If you knew that this was incorrect and it was wrong then why did you continue to write down this charge on your paperwork as a felony?” Edwards, the judge, asked.
“That I wrote down. It could just be a mistake,” D’Amico said, adding later, “I never meant to misinform the reader by any means.”
D’Amico will continue to be questioned on Tuesday.
One of the petitioners, Joo-Hyun Kang, who leads Communities United for Police Reform, said she hopes the inquiry helps get more information about “corruption at the highest levels of New York.”
“The bigger question is why didn’t the mayor, in seven plus years, intervene at any point to say that, ‘you know what, it is unacceptable that there is so much misconduct surrounding this case of the killing of Eric Garner and I want every rock turned over, I want transparency on all of this and I want ever officer held accountable,’” Kang said at a news conference.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is not expected to be questioned in the inquiry, but he said during a news conference Monday that Garner’s death “continues to pain us.”
“There’s been a lot that’s been done to make sure it never happens again. Still a lot more to do. But I hope as we end this chapter, we just have to keep doing the work so nothing like this ever happens again,” de Blasio said.