On a sweltering day five years ago July 17, Eric Garner was standing in a doorway on Bay Street in Staten Island’s Tomkinsville neighborhood, after, some said, he had broken up a fight nearby. But Mr. Garner, a 43-year-old married father of six, was being watched.
Known to police, he had racked up dozens of arrests for quality-of-life infractions, several of them for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Two Police Officers from the 120th Precinct, ordered by their commanding officer to keep tabs on him, sat in their parked patrol car a few hundred feet away and focused on Mr. Garner.
A Single Cigarette
One of them, Police Officer Justin Damico, would later testify that he saw Mr. Garner sell a single cigarette to one of two men. He and his partner, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, moved in to arrest him.
But Mr. Garner was defiant, protesting his innocence, and resisted the officers’ attempts to detain him.
During an ensuing physical confrontation, caught on a cellphone video that would be seen and dissected millions of times, Officer Pantaleo—an anti-crime officer not typically assigned to quality-of-life violations of the type Mr. Garner was suspected of that day—grabbed the 6-foot, 3-inch Mr. Garner from behind and wrestled him to the ground.
A long wait for an ambulance would follow, only cursory care was administered on the street as an Emergency Medical Technician chided the now-unconscious man to let her help him. By the time they reached Richmond University Hospital Mr. Garner was dead.
Over the next few weeks and months, which then stretched to years, the question local, state and Federal prosecutors, as well as Mr. Pantaleo’s employers, the NYPD, would seek to answer was whether the officer had used excessive force, and, specifically, whether he had employed a department-prohibited chokehold while arresting Mr. Garner. If they determined that he had, a thornier inquiry would have to follow: Whether to prosecute.
Whether Mr. Pantaleo ever faces a criminal trial for his actions that day should once and for all be answered this week: The Justice Department had five years from the time of Mr. Garner’s death on July 17, 2014, to bring charges.
The denouement has been long in coming, in part, if not mostly, because of both intra-jurisdictional quarrels and competing priorities of city, state and Federal agencies.
About two weeks after Mr. Garner died, the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office said his death was caused by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” Although the ME’s Office said acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and high blood pressure were contributing factors, it classified his death a homicide.
That fall, a Staten Island grand jury heard testimony over nine weeks from dozens of witnesses, including police officers, EMTs, doctors and civilians. It declined to indict Officer Pantaleo.
On December 3, after it was announced that the grand jury had insufficient evidence to indict, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Justice Department would begin a civil-rights inquiry into Mr. Garner’s death.
“Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation,” he said at the time.
Little except more hand-wringing at Justice has resulted from that inquiry.
Probers: A Chokehold
On the first day of Mr. Pantaleo’s trial on administrative charges, May 13 of this year, prosecutors from the Civilian Complaint Review Board elicited testimony from an NYPD Deputy Inspector that revealed that the department’s own Internal Affairs investigators concluded that Officer Pantaleo’s takedown maneuver was in fact a chokehold. NYPD officials, though, would defer to Federal authorities’ investigations before moving forward, despite an investigator’s recommendation in 2015 that the officer be disciplined.
He stayed a cop, albeit one assigned to desk duty, where he remains.
A Federal inquiry occurred when a grand jury empaneled in Brooklyn in February 2016 heard evidence, including what was presented to the Staten Island panel. That process seemingly stalled.
Federal prosecutors have spent years considering whether to indict. According to the New York Times, Justice Department officials in Brooklyn argued against bringing charges, while their colleagues in Washington, D.C., were convinced they could successfully prosecute Officer Pantaleo. The Times reported that Loretta E. Lynch, who succeeded Mr. Holder and was President Obama’s last Attorney General, sanctioned prosecution.
During her tenure as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Ms. Lynch had met with Mr. Garner’s family, including his mother, Gwen Carr, a few weeks after his death. Still, no Federal mandate to prosecute was forthcoming.
A Change in Washington
After President Trump took office, the possibility of Mr. Pantaleo facing Federal criminal charges became increasingly remote; his first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, expressed a reluctance to initiate cases against police officers for taking actions they deemed necessary.
Still, career Federal civil-rights prosecutors in April 2018 recommended that he be prosecuted. Their call, however, met resistance from top Justice Department officials.
Since then, turnover at Justice—including the resignations of Attorney General Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—as well as Mr. Trump’s spirited championing of law enforcement, would suggest that Federal charges are improbable.
A Secret Decision
In May, Mr. Pantaleo faced administrative charges that he violated the NYPD’s Patrol Guide by using the department-banned chokehold. For him to be found guilty, the two prosecutors from the Civilian Complaint Review Board needed to convince Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado that he did so only through a preponderance of credible evidence rather than by proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Judge Maldonado was to forward her findings to Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill, who is charged with making final determinations as to guilt or innocence and punishment. But according to the NYPD’s interpretation of a section of state civil-rights law, both Judge Maldonado’s findings and Commissioner O’Neill’s are to remain confidential.
Officer Pantaleo could be fired if he is found guilty.
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