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NYPD Commissioner announces decision to fire Officer Daniel Pantaleo over chokehold death of Eric Garner

2019-08-19

In this May 13 photo, Officer Daniel Pantaleo leaves his house in Staten Island. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP)

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced Monday he is firing Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the Staten Island chokehold death of Eric Garner.

“The unintended consequences of Eric Garner’s death must have consequences of its own,” O’Neill said at a news conference at police headquarters in Lower Manhattan. “It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”

The long-awaited decision, on the heels of a recommendation by an NYPD judge that the officer get the ax, caps a painful saga that began more than five years ago, helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement and prompted the police to train its officers how to de-escalate tense street confrontations.

“Mr. Garner was somebody’s son, somebody’s dad. Everyone in the NYPD understands that.” O’Neill said. “He should have decided against resisting arrest, but a man with a family lost his life, and that is an irresistible tragedy.”

Mayor de Blasio plans to discuss the decision at a 2 p.m. City Hall press briefing.

“I can’t breathe,” Garner cried out 11 times as he was brought down to the sidewalk on Bay St., as seen in a cellphone video exclusively obtained by the Daily News that went viral and drew cries of outrage from around the world.

Garner, suspected of selling loosies — individual, untaxed cigarettes that merchants complain undercuts their licensed businesses — told police he had just broken up a fight and did nothing wrong.

The New York Daily News exclusive video captures the final fatal moments of Eric Garner during an arrest attempt in Staten Island on July 17, 2014.

The 43-year-old Garner, whose arrest record included arrests for selling loosies, railed against police harassing him and resisted arrest.

“This ends today!” he yelled.

The standoff was a garden variety encounter until police moved in to handcuff him and Pantaleo, far smaller than the 395-pound Garner, took him to the ground, his arm around Garner’s neck as they hit the sidewalk.

Pantaleo, who joined the NYPD in 2006, clasped his hands and Garner, suffering from asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, among other illnesses, started coughing, the judge, Rosemary Maldonado, said in her decision.

The officer’s lawyer, Stu London, argued at Pantaleo’s deparmental trial that Pantaleo used a department-approved seatbelt technique to take Garner down and that he did so in part to avoid he and Garner cracking a storefront plate glass window. Garner died, London argued, because he resisted arrest and was in poor health.

Eric Garner is pictured in an undated photo.
Eric Garner is pictured in an undated photo. (Handout)

But shortly after the July 17, 2014, incident, then-Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said Pantaleo used a department-banned chokehold. An internal investigation concluded the same, as the did the city Medical Examiner’s office.

Maldonado, who presided over Pantaleo’s departmental trial, said much the same thing in her 46-page decision and all but called Pantaleo a liar.

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The death of Eric Garner and the events that followed

The 34-year-old officer — who was cleared by both a Staten Island grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice and had been working a desk job, without his shield and gun, since Garner died — sat stone-faced throughout the trial and did not testify.

But in an interview with internal investigators, the content of which was not revealed in any meaningful way until Maldonado’s decision, Pantaleo was “untruthful,” the judge found, noting that his explanation of the fatal encounter was “implausible and self-serving.”

“I examined the totality of the circumstances and relied on the facts‚” O’Neill said. “If I had been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation I may have made similar mistakes."

O’Neill’s decision was quickly rebuked by the city’s largest police union, which said the commissioner caved into anti-police extremists and politicians.

“He will wake up tomorrow to discover that the cop-haters are still not satisfied, but it will be too late,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said in a statement. "The damage is already done. The NYPD will remain rudderless and frozen, and Commissioner O’Neill will never be able to bring it back.

Lynch said officers should proceed with the “utmost caution” when carrying out arrests.

"We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety,” Lynch said.

O’Neill acknowledged the backlash he is getting from the rank-and-file.

“I know many will disagree with this decision and that is their right,” O’Neill said. “If I was still a police officer, I would be mad at me.”

Reaction was swift, and cut across the community spectrum.

“For over 5 years, the Garner family & communities across the country have waited for justice in the death of Eric Garner,” state Attorney General Letitia James tweeted after the announcement. “With the termination of Officer Pantaleo, today some semblance of justice is finally being served.”

“It may be tempting to call this justice, but it’s not,” Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “We cannot lower our standards just because the NYPD has kept the bar so low.”

“While this decision finally brings closure for the Garner family, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo should have been fired in 2014 and immediately stripped of his pension.," said Redmond Haskins, a spokesman for the Legal Aid Society. “Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s many attempts to point fingers elsewhere and spread the blame for years of inaction, New Yorkers now know that City Hall had the authority and jurisdiction to act decisively on this matter early on yet still did not.”

Luongo said the ruling does not absolve the city from charging and ultimately firing the other officers who were involved in Garner’s death.