The Slatest

NYPD Officer Avoids Federal Charges in Eric Garner’s Death

Gwen Carr speaks at a news conference, surrounded by people with protest signs.
Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, in Manhattan on May 21.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Department of Justice will not move forward with federal charges against the New York Police Department officer involved in Eric Garner’s death, according to the New York Times. The decision, which federal prosecutors are set to announce Tuesday, came a day before the fifth anniversary of the deadly encounter. Garner’s final words of “I can’t breathe” as the officer held him in a chokehold became a flashpoint for protests against police violence against black communities.

According to ABC News, which cited a senior Justice Department official, the department’s Civil Rights Division recommended charges against the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, but Attorney General William Barr instead chose not to prosecute, following the recommendation of the Eastern District of New York. Garner’s family has publicly confirmed the Justice Department’s decision.

Pantaleo will now escape all charges for Garner’s death, as a state grand jury in 2014 declined to indict him on criminal charges, and no other officers involved in the 2014 incident have been charged with a crime or disciplined by the NYPD. The 34-year-old Pantaleo remains, as he has for the past five years, on desk duty at the NYPD, collecting regular pay and pension benefits. Once an administrative judge hands down a verdict on Palanteo’s NYPD disciplinary trial, launched earlier this year, Police Commissioner James O’Neill will have the opportunity to fire Pantaleo or in more minor ways punish the officer. The Garner family and the city of New York reached a civil settlement in 2015 for $5.9 million.

In July 2014, Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, was confronted by police who accused him of selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. When he refused to be handcuffed, Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold, a maneuver that the NYPD prohibits, and other officers pressed his chest to the ground. Even though the incident was captured on an infamous viral video, Pantaleo has contested that version of events and said he used a different and legal technique. The bystander video of the attack recorded Garner pleading “I can’t breathe” multiple times before falling unconscious. A medical examiner testified that the pressure had triggered a fatal asthma attack and determined that his death was a homicide. Pantaleo testified that he had been afraid Garner would push him through a storefront window.

Garner’s death occurred amid a string of nationally prominent police killings of black men. One month later, police in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, sparking days of protests and the wide growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

According to the Washington Post, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has consistently argued for charges against Palanteo, but both the FBI and federal prosecutors in New York were hesitant to make the same call, given the difficulty of proving an officer’s intent. The disagreements led to power struggles within the investigation, and the decision not to file charges came only a day before the statute of limitations was set to expire on the case. In the five years since the incident, there have been four separate U.S. attorneys general responsible for the case. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein refused to move forward with charges, possibly because many within the department believed prosecutors would lose the case.

Garner’s family has condemned the decision. His mother has said the Justice Department “failed” her and her family, and Garner’s daughter Emerald called for Pantaleo to be fired. “My father is gone and nobody gives a fuck,” she said in an emotional address outside the courthouse Tuesday.

Politicians and other officials joined in voicing outrage. “The entire world saw the same devastating video five years ago, and our eyes did not lie,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. “Today’s inaction reflects a DOJ that has turned its back on its fundamental mission—to seek and serve justice.”