Exactly four years ago, Eric Garner, a black man, died in a police chokehold after they approached him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. His final words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry against police brutality and a slogan for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.
Four years later, New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo has not been charged for using the banned chokehold tactic on 43-year-old Garner, and remains on the NYPD payroll on “modified duty.” That’s because the federal civil rights investigation into Garner’s death has dragged on, in part due to a disagreement between New York federal prosecutors and civil rights officials at the Justice Department in D.C.
Now, frustrated by the slow pace of action, the New York Police Department has given the feds an ultimatum: Announce civil rights charges by Aug. 31, or we'll take matters into our own hands.
“Understandably, members of the public in general and the Garner family in particular have grown impatient with the fact that NYPD has not proceeded with our disciplinary proceedings,” wrote the Department’s Deputy Commissioner of Legal Affairs Larry Byrne in a letter Monday. “They have difficulty comprehending a decision to defer to a federal criminal investigation that seems to have no end in sight.”
In December 2014, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges, a decision that touched off renewed protests across New York City. Garner’s death was captured on video. He was first approached by police officers who suspected that he was selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk.
Should the Justice Department fail to meet the Aug. 31 deadline, Pantaleo will undergo an internal disciplinary trial, which an NYPD deputy police commissioner will oversee.
Departmental charges, as recommended by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an external watchdog agency, could result in Pantaleo being fired or suspended from the NYPD.
Career civil rights officials at the DOJ have been pushing to indict Pantaleo, the New York Times reported in April. But the decision whether to proceed with an indictment now sits entirely with top-level Justice Department officials, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who have appeared skeptical as to whether Pantaleo committed a crime, according to the Times.
“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,” said Police Benevolent Association Patrick J. Lynch in a statement. “Police Officer Pantaleo is entitled to due process and an impartial consideration of the facts.”
Cover image: Rally participants hold signs near the site of Eric Garner's death in 2016. (Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)