Four years after the death of a Staten Island man who was confronted by police about selling loose cigarettes, the New York Police Department has warned that it will start disciplinary action against the officer involved if the Justice Department doesn’t act on its federal civil rights investigation.
Eric Garner, 43, died on July 17, 2014, after being placed in a chokehold-like restraint by a police officer during the verbal confrontation, which was captured by passer-by video as he repeatedly told officers “I can’t breathe” before passing out on the sidewalk. That December, a grand jury decided to not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who had put his arm around Garner’s neck from behind and pushed him to the ground.
After the grand jury’s announcement, then-Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department would be proceeding with a federal civil rights investigation into Garner’s death. He said that would entail the DOJ’s own investigative work as well as reviewing the local jurisdiction’s materials.
The city of New York agreed to pay the Garner family nearly $6 million to settle a civil action in July 2015. After investigators from the FBI’s New York Field Office recommended that no charges be brought in the case, Attorney General Loretta Lynch reassigned the case to agents outside the state in October 2016.
In March 2017, Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said she turned to the new administration for help and was told by Omarosa Manigault, then director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, that the White House would look into the case.
“The NYPD has come to the conclusion that given the extraordinary passage of time since the incident without a final decision on the US DOJ’s criminal investigation, any further delay in moving ahead with our own disciplinary proceedings can no longer be justified,” NYPD lawyer Lawrence Byrne wrote in a letter to the DOJ.
Byrne gave the DOJ until Aug. 31 to act, before internal disciplinary action against Pantaleo proceeds in September.
He added that “understandably, members of the public in general and the Garner family in particular have grown impatient with the fact that [the] NYPD has not proceeded with our disciplinary proceedings and they have difficulty comprehending a decision to defer to a federal criminal investigation that seems to have no end in sight.”
“We believe that this course of action will give the U.S. DOJ sufficient time to make a final decision in this matter while hopefully providing the Garner family and the public with some assurance that appropriate disciplinary proceedings will proceed within a definite timeframe,” he added.
Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that represents NYPD officers, said in a statement,“We agree that the Justice Department’s leadership should move to close Police Officer Pantaleo’s case and put an end to what has been a highly irregular fishing expedition by those seeking an indictment at all cost.”
“However, that should not trigger a race by the NYPD to reach a pre-determined outcome in its own disciplinary processes,” Lynch added. “Police Officer Pantaleo is entitled to due process and an impartial consideration of the facts. If that is allowed to occur, we are confident that he will be vindicated and will finally be able to move forward.”
Garner’s daughter, Erica Garner-Snipes, became an activist after her father’s death but suffered a heart attack after the birth of her son Eric. She died on Dec. 30 at age 27.