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NYPD fires Officer Daniel Pantaleo over Eric Garner's chokehold death

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD PBA officials and members of Eric Garner's family, on Monday all had strong reactions to the firing of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was involved in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes; Todd Maisel, Marcus Santos)

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Anthony M. DeStefano, Nicole Fuller, Ivan Pereira and Maya Rajamani. It was written by Fuller.

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill has fired Daniel Pantaleo, the officer whose use of a banned chokehold during an arrest was partly blamed for the death of Eric Garner — the 2014 fatal encounter that sparked a national debate on race, policing and the use of force.

"In this case, the unintended consequence of Mr. Garner's death must have a consequence of its own," O'Neill said in announcing his decision at a Monday news conference at NYPD headquarters in Manhattan.

"It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer," said the commissioner, backing the recommendations of the judge who presided over Pantaleo's departmental trial. "In carrying out the court's verdict in this case, I take no pleasure. I know that many will disagree with this decision. That is their right. There are absolutely no victors here today."

O'Neill said Pantaleo has "now lost his chosen career."

Pantaleo's termination is a critical benchmark in a case that generated one of New York City’s most contentious public debates and spurred widespread street protests across the country that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. A cellphone video showed Pantaleo trying to subdue Garner as the Staten Island man cried out 11 times “I can’t breathe” — a phrase that became a rallying cry for police reform across the nation.

The case led to NYPD reforms, O’Neill said, citing the move to outfit the department’s 36,000 officers with body cameras and new de-escalation training for officers.

Pantaleo’s attorney Stu London said he would appeal his client's termination, which is effective immediately.

“Obviously he is disappointed, upset,” London said of Pantaleo, who drew an annual salary of $97,000 and will lose his pension. “But he has a lot of strength and wants to go forward as strenuously as he can.”

Garner, 43, died on a Staten Island sidewalk on July 17, 2014, as Pantaleo attempted to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes or “loosies.”

Pantaleo, 34, a 13-year department veteran, spent the last five years stripped of his gun and badge and on desk duty in the 120th Precinct in Staten Island as state, federal and departmental investigations ensued and ultimately determined no criminal prosecution was merited. Garner's family and advocates, meanwhile, called for his firing and arrest. 

O’Neill said he relied on the decision of the judge, who ruled Pantaleo should be fired for breaking department policy by using the banned chokehold while trying to arrest Garner. A city medical examiner, while acknowledging Garner was obese and had asthma, ruled the death a homicide as a result of the chokehold and chest compressions.

The commissioner's decision to fire Pantaleo immediately drew a sharp rebuke from the NYPD ranks and praise from Garner's family and city officials, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president. He said at a news conference Monday that "finally, justice has been done."

"The important point," the mayor told CNN on Tuesday morning, is "there was a fair trial for the first time — and it happened at the NYPD."

Garner's daughter, Emerald Snipes Garner, at her own news conference with other Garner family members beside her said: "For Commissioner O'Neill, I thank you for doing the right thing. I sincerely thank you for firing the officer … You finally made a decision that should have been made five years ago.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has advised the family over the past five years and appeared with the family at his National Action Network in Harlem, said he and the family would continue to push for reforms, including congressional hearings and state and federal laws making the use of a chokehold a crime.

"We are relieved, but we are not celebratory," Sharpton said. "There’s nothing to celebrate because Pantaleo will go home a terminated man, but this family had to go to a funeral.”

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said: "The reality is that Eric Garner would still be alive were it not for Mr. Pantaleo's actions, and while the system has failed Eric Garner’s family repeatedly for the past five years, at least the right thing was done today.”

But Patrick Lynch, the president of the city’s Police Benevolent Association, blasted O’Neill, saying the decision would leave the police department “rudderless and frozen” and called for a no-confidence vote in both O’Neill and de Blasio.

Lynch, standing behind a police department flag turned upside down, told officers to call their supervisors before making arrests, in remarks widely interpreted to be calling for a work slowdown of officers.

“We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job,” Lynch said. “We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.”

The mayor warned against a possible work slowdown by police.

“The people of this city will not accept any work slowdowns by any public servants,” said de Blasio. “They did not accept it in 2015, they will not accept it today. I want to believe that there are some limits that even a union leader, who often has been willing to be divisive, understands it's not legal to suggest a work slowdown. And I believe the men and women of the NYPD do not think that way. I think they're here to do their job.”

The case has been a continuing source of tension between the rank and file of the NYPD and city officials.

In 2014, after the Staten Island district attorney declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo, a mentally ill man from Baltimore traveled to New York City with a mission of “putting wings on pigs” and killed then NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, purportedly to avenge the deaths of Garner and others. Lynch said then that de Blasio, who had spoken publicly about conversations he had with his mixed-race son about dealing with the police, had “blood on his hands” — and police officers staged a slowdown in which many quality-of-life laws weren’t enforced. 

Judge Rosemarie Maldonado, a deputy police commissioner who presided over Pantaleo’s departmental trial, said in her 46-page opinion that the officer's explanation during a 2014 interview with internal investigators that he did not use a chokehold on Garner was “implausible and self-serving.” She concluded that he was “untruthful” to investigators, the report said.

Maldonado said the video of the encounter and Garner’s autopsy, which found hemorrhaging in his neck muscles, was “overwhelming” evidence that Pantaleo used a chokehold, despite NYPD training against it.

“Pantaleo’s use of a chokehold fell so far short of objective reasonableness that this tribunal found it to be reckless — a gross deviation from the standard of conduct established for a New York City police officer,” the report said.

Still, O’Neill, who at times appeared emotional, called Garner’s death an “irreversible tragedy” and Pantaleo’s firing “another kind of tragedy,” adding that his decision did not come easy.

He also acknowledged many on the force would disagree with him.

"If I was a cop right now, I'd probably be mad at me," he said, reflecting on his own career as a police officer before becoming the top cop.

O’Neill, who was appointed police commissioner by de Blasio just months after Garner’s death, denied that the mayor pressured him into firing Pantaleo. He said he concurred with Maldonado’s recommendations and the affirmation of them from Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker. He spoke to the mayor only about “process and possible outcomes,” he said.

“I did this based on evidence and testimony at the trial,” said O’Neill, adding: “This is my decision.”

He took into account, he said, Pantaleo’s record of service as an officer, with 289 arrests, several of them for illegal guns, and 14 department commendations.

But O’Neill said he had watched the video of Garner’s arrest many times, and while watching Garner resisting arrest he thought, “Don’t do it. Comply.” And as he watched Pantaleo using a chokehold, he said, he thought: “Don’t do it.”

In mid-July, just a day before the five-year anniversary of Garner’s death, Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said federal prosecutors concluded Pantaleo used legal maneuvers to try to control a resisting Garner and only used an NYPD-banned chokehold accidentally for seven seconds, making it impossible to prove he acted willfully as the federal law requires.

Donoghue said other experts cited factors including Garner's underlying medical conditions and the five-year statute of limitations on civil rights violations — in which a law enforcement officer is accused of committing serious bodily injury — had expired. 

The decision was denounced by Sharpton, as a “disgrace and judicial malpractice” by the Department of Justice.

After that ruling, the calls for Pantaleo’s firing intensified, with cries from protesters of “Fire Pantaleo!” ringing out during a recent televised Democratic presidential debate. Garner’s family also promised protests if Pantaleo was not fired.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story used the wrong word to describe Officer Daniel Pantaleo's  14 department commendations.

EXCERPTS FROM NEWS CONFERENCE BY NYPD COMMISSIONER JAMES O'NEILL ON THE FIRING OF OFFICER DANIEL PANTALEO

“Trials Commissioner Maldonado found that Officer Pantaleo’s conduct caused physical injury that meets the Penal Law threshold, and that his “recklessness caused multilayered internal bruising and hemorrhaging that impaired Mr. Garner’s physical condition and caused substantial pain and was a significant factor in triggering an asthma attack.

For all of these reasons taken together, even after reviewing Officer Pantaleo’s commendable service record of nearly 300 arrests and 14 departmental medals earned leading up to that day, Trials Commissioner Maldonado recommended that he be dismissed from the NYPD.”

“I can’t remove myself from the fact that I was a uniformed cop for 24 years. ... It’s in my DNA. It’s who I am. But as police commissioner, I have to think about the city and the rules and regs in the NYPD.”

“I served for nearly 34 years as a uniformed New York City cop before becoming police commissioner. I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes. And had I made those mistakes, I would have wished I had used the arrival of back-up officers to give the situation more time to make the arrest. And I would have wished that I had released my grip before it became a chokehold.”

Being a police officer is one of the hardest jobs in the world. That is not a statement to elicit sympathy from those we serve; it is a fact. Cops have to make choices, sometimes very quickly, every single day. Some are split-second life-and-death choices. Oftentimes, they are choices that will be thoroughly, and repeatedly, examined by those with much more time to think about them than the police officer had. And those decisions are scrutinized and second-guessed, both fairly and unfairly.”

“No one believes that Officer Pantaleo got out of bed on July 17, 2014, thinking he would make choices and take actions — during an otherwise routine arrest — that would lead to another person’s death. But an officer’s choices and actions, even made under extreme pressure, matter.”

“It is unlikely that Mr. Garner thought he was in such poor health that a brief struggle with police would cause his death. He should have decided against resisting arrest. But, a man with a family lost his life — and that is an irreversible tragedy. And a hardworking police officer with a family, a man who took this job to do good — to make a difference in his home community — has now lost his chosen career. And that is a different kind of tragedy.”

“In carrying out the court’s verdict in this case, I take no pleasure. I know that many will disagree with this decision, and that is their right. There are absolutely no victors here today — not the Garner family, not the community at-large, and certainly not the courageous men and women of this police department, who put their own lives on the line every single day in service to the people of this great city.”

ERIC GARNER CASE TIMELINE:

July 17, 2014: Eric Garner dies following a physical encounter with NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo on a Staten Island sidewalk. Garner was accused of selling untaxed cigarettes or “loosies” when Pantaleo responds and attempts to arrest Garner, briefly using a chokehold to subdue him.

Aug. 1, 2014: The New York City medical examiner rules Garner’s death a homicide. Garner’s death was due to neck and chest compression and his asthma, obesity and heart disease were contributing factors, the medical examiner rules.

Dec. 3, 2014: A Staten Island grand jury refuses to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges in Garner’s death, setting off widespread protests across the city that shut down streets and disrupted commerce. The U.S. Justice Department announced it would launch its own investigation into whether Garner’s civil rights were violated.

Dec. 20, 2014: Gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley fatally shoots NYPD Dets. Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in a patrol car before killing himself. The gunman had announced online he was planning to shoot “pigs” in retaliation for Garner’s death.

July 13, 2015: New York City agrees to pay the estate of Eric Garner $5.9 million to settle a lawsuit over his death. The city doesn’t admit fault as part of the settlement.

July 21, 2018: The NYPD begins disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo.

May 13, 2019: The NYPD disciplinary trial against Pantaleo begins. It ends nearly a month later.

July 16, 2019: Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue announces the justice department would not pursue federal civil rights charges against Pantaleo, saying he only used an NYPD-banned chokehold accidentally for seven seconds, which made it impossible to prove he had acted willfully, the federal standard for pursuing a case.

Aug. 19, 2019: NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill fires Pantaleo over Eric Garner’s chokehold death.

Reaction in the wake of O’Neill’s decision to fire Pantaleo:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: The most important thing we can do to change is to never have the tragedy again. And that actually — when you look at everything that has happened — and Commissioner O’Neill referred to this — when you look at everything that has happened literally from just days after this tragedy until today, the retraining of this entire police force — retraining 36,000 officers regularly to de-escalate so that exact incident would not happen again.”

Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr; “Yeah, Pantaleo, you may have lost your job, but I lost a son! I lost my son, you cannot replace that! You can get another job, maybe at Burger King”

Pantaleo attorney Stu London: “I spoke to the officer, obviously he is disappointed, upset but has a lot of strength and wants to go forward as strenuously as he can...When you talk about Maldonado’s decision, it was horrific, her talking about 3-4 second defining recklessness, if that defines recklessness…almost arrest in this city is reckless. What I think happened was that Commissioner Maldonado made a decision to find him guilty and then work backwards.”

PBA President Patrick J. Lynch: “Now it is time for every police officer in this city to make their own choice. We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job. We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.”

Rep. Pete King: “I believe it is wrong to end a decorated Officer’s career for a split second decision made in the heat of battle — a decision many would consider reasonable under such exigent circumstances — and at a time when Police Officers are literally under siege.”

Eric Garner family attorney Jonathan Moore: “This is not a day of celebration. It’s a day that should have happened… five years ago. This is a tragedy for the city. It’s a tragedy for the Garner family. And it’s really a tragedy for the rule of law. Think of all the institutions that have looked at this case and have said, ‘We’re not going to do anything.’”

The Rev. Al Sharpton: “So though this may be good for the city that the city enforced this policy, this is not some moment of pleasure or joy for the family, that has lost so much and could have expected that the city would have treated Eric Garner or any other citizen with the due process of law and following of police policies...We will be going to the state of New York to ask that they begin to make it illegal by law, the use of the chokehold....We are relieved, but we are not celebratory. There’s nothing to celebrate.e because Pantaleo will go home a terminated man, but this family had to go to a funeral.”

Attorney General Letitia James: “For over five years, the Garner family and communities across the country have waited for justice in the death of Eric Garner. While we will never be able to change the events that transpired or bring Mr. Garner back, today, some semblance of justice is finally being served. In memory of Eric Garner and the countless others who have unjustly lost their lives, we will continue to fight for reforms to fix our broken criminal justice system and ensure that all of our communities feel safe.”

City comptroller Scott Stringer: “I hope today’s long overdue decision finally gives a measure of closure to the Garner family. We cannot allow another family to be denied justice for years, for no good reason. Now I urge the Commissioner to finish the job and terminate all the officers who stood by and watched as Eric Garner gasped for breath.”

Kesi Foster, Lead Organizer at Make the Road New York: “Firing Officer Pantaleo should have happened five years ago, but it was absolutely necessary following the CCRB trial. This must not, however, mark the end of justice for Eric Garner and for accountability for police brutality and misconduct. This should be the beginning of a broader accountability process — community organizations across New York will continue to stand with Gwen Carr to ensure all officers involved in Eric Garner’s murder be fired immediately.”

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman: “For five long years, the family of Eric Garner has fought for some semblance of justice after Garner’s life was taken from them by Daniel Pantaleo. While today’s decision will not bring Eric Garner back to life or erase the pain felt by his family, it affirms what we all know: Pantaleo used excessive force on an unarmed Black man and is not fit to serve as a police officer.”

Nassau Police Benevolent Association President James McDermott: “It is undisputed that Police Officer Pantaleo followed orders from above by acting on the complaints of small business owners who wanted Eric Garner removed from in front of their premises and stopped from conducting his illegal business.”

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