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NYPD judge recommends firing officer in Eric Garner's chokehold death

Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses the media Friday after an administrative judge recommended firing the NYPD officer accused of using a chokehold in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in police custody. Credit: Matthew Chayes

An NYPD administrative judge recommended that Officer Daniel Pantaleo be fired for his actions relating to the chokehold death of Eric Garner five years ago, effectively putting the politically charged case on the desk of police Commissioner James O’Neill.

The city’s top cop will now have to decide if the 34-year-old officer should be terminated or face some other penalty, officials said. On Friday, the NYPD suspended Pantaleo as word of the recommendation began to leak.

The 45-page decision by Deputy Commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado in the disciplinary case remained under wraps and is likely to stay confidential because of state law restrictions that prevent the disclosure of police personnel records, which courts have said covers administrative police rulings. Maldonado presided over Pantaleo’s administrative trial during May and June.

At a news conference Friday, Pantaleo’s attorney Stuart London indicated that Maldonado actually found his client not guilty of the offense of strangulation but did find him guilty of recklessness in assaulting Garner with a prohibited chokehold while trying to arrest him on July 17, 2014 on a Staten Island sidewalk for selling loose cigarettes. Maldonado decided that Pantaleo’s actions, involving a chokehold for three to four seconds during the arrest, were grounds to fire him, the attorney said.

A legal source familiar with the case said that Maldonado in her decision didn’t find fault with the way Pantaleo initially grappled with Garner as he resisted arrest. The arrest was captured on an amateur video and showed Garner at one point while he was on the ground gasping, “I can’t breathe!” 11 times. Garner’s struggle to breathe became a rallying cry against police misconduct across the country.

During the takedown, Pantaleo and Garner — an asthmatic, obese man weighing over 300 pounds with a compromised cardiovascular system — bumped into a plate glass window that buckled but didn’t break. Once on the ground, Pantaleo appeared to place Garner in a brief chokehold, an action Maldonado found to be reckless, said the legal source. A medical expert called during Pantaleo’s administrative trial testified that Garner’s compromised physical condition contributed to his death.

London and attorneys for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the agency that tried Pantaleo in the NYPD trial room, have until Aug. 14 to respond to Maldonado’s decision in writing. Maldonado will then forward her recommendation, along with any changes, to O’Neill, who will make a final determination. It will be up to O’Neill to decide whether Pantaleo should indeed be fired.

Maldonado’s recommendation brought quick reaction Friday from a number of quarters, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who found himself dogged by the case during this week’s televised Democratic presidential debate when protesters in the studio audience yelled out “Fire Pantaleo.”

“Today, we finally saw a step toward justice and accountability,” de Blasio told reporters at a City Hall news conference. “We saw a process that was actually fair and impartial. And I hope that this will now bring the Garner family a sense of closure and the beginning of some peace.”

But even within the confines of City Hall, protesters were able to penetrate security and cried out, “Fire Pantaleo,” as de Blasio spoke.

De Blasio spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein disclosed Friday that then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch had been among the Department of Justice personnel who sought to delay the proceedings — which took nearly five years to begin.

De Blasio continued to get criticism Friday from Garner family members who were angered by the way the case had gone on for five years after a Staten Island grand jury and federal prosecutors decided not to bring charges against Pantaleo.

“It is outrageous that I have had to be fighting for five years to get the Mayor to do his job to make sure that there is accountability when the NYPD murders our children,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said in a statement. “The Mayor has been dragging his heels and obstructing accountability at every turn for the past five years.”

Carr said she wants not only Pantaleo fired but also some of the other officers involved in the arrest disciplined and fired as well.

“I want to see action and will not stop fighting for my son until Pantaleo and all the other officers who did wrong are fired,” Carr said.

But in a news conference along with Pantaleo’s attorneys, Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch said Maldonado’s recommendation to fire Pantaleo “was ludicrous.”

“New York City police officers will now be considered reckless every time they put their hands on someone, that is what our job is,” said Lynch.

He called for officers to be circumspect when on a call where they might have to put their hands on someone and things could escalate.

“I stand here today to tell every New York City police officer — and they are on patrol right now — when someone calls 911, and dispatchers call you and there is a circumstance where you have to put you hand on someone: call your sergeant first, call emergency service second, because you will not have the backing of the city, you will not have the backing of the department,” Lynch said.

Lynch also went after the mayor for predetermining the outcome of Maldonado’s decision by saying during the debate that the Garner family would get justice.

“These are terrible circumstances for that family, these are terrible circumstances for the police officers that were involved, it is a horrible decision that came out today by someone who doesn’t understand the law but unfortunately understands politics ” Lynch said.

With the case going to O’Neill, Lynch called on the commissioner to stand up to critics and those who want cops to “hug a thug” and instead keep Pantaleo on the force.

“We are asking the police commissioner … to recognize what this decision will mean, to gather the strength to make a decision that many will say is wrong,” said Lynch.

On Wednesday at the Democratic presidential debate, de Blasio promised “justice” this month in the Garner case.

NYPD spokesman Phil Walzak said that Pantaleo was suspended Friday without pay as was standard in cases where termination was recommended by the trial commissioner.

“All of New York City understandably seeks closure to this difficult chapter in our city’s history,” Walzak said. “Premature  statements or judgments before the process is complete however cannot and will not be made. In order to protect the integrity of the trial proceedings and conclusion, the NYPD will not comment further until the police commissioner makes the final determination.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio: “Today, we finally saw a step toward justice and accountability. We saw a process that was actually fair and impartial. And I hope that this will now bring the Garner family a sense of closure and the beginning of some peace. But full justice means that there can never be another tragedy like that one that befell Eric Garner. Full justice is when we never have another death. That is all of our responsibility and it requires us to change everything."

Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner: “It is outrageous that I have had to be fighting for five years to get the Mayor to do his job to make sure that there is accountability when the NYPD murders our children … Actions speak louder than words and so far I still haven't seen action …. I want to see action and will not stop fighting for my son until Pantaleo and all the other officers who did wrong are fired. “

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association: “This decision is pure political insanity. If it is allowed to stand, it will paralyze the NYPD for years to come. This judge ignored the evidence and trampled P.O. Pantaleo’s due process rights in order to deliver the result that the grandstanding politicians and protesters demanded. The only hope for justice now lies with Police Commissioner O’Neill. He knows the message that this decision sends to every cop: we are expendable, and we cannot expect any support from the city we protect. He knows that if he affirms this horrendous decision, he will lose his police department.”

NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Phillip Walzak: “All of New York City understandably seeks closure to this difficult chapter in our city’s history. Premature statements or judgments before the process is complete however cannot and will not be made. In order to protect the integrity of the trial proceedings and conclusion, the NYPD will not comment further until the police commissioner makes the final determination.”

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