It has been half a decade since Eric Garner died on Staten Island not long after pleading, “I can’t breathe,” while immobilized in and under the arms of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The nauseating encounter was filmed, launching nationwide protests. The NYC medical examiner said the compression of Garner’s neck and chest contributed to his death. Yet the NYPD still has not decided whether Pantaleo should keep his job.
That was the overdue question at hand no matter what the Justice Department announced Tuesday regarding its civil rights investigation of Pantaleo. The five-year statute of limitations ticked out this week, with federal prosecutors in the Trump and Obama administrations not finding enough evidence to prove a willful civil rights violation.
In defending how the NYPD slow-walked Pantaleo’s case, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the Department of Justice asked the city to wait on a departmental trial. Yet, the city moved much more quickly after Anthony Baez died after an officer’s chokehold in 1994. It made sense with Pantaleo to pause until the Staten Island grand jury finished its inquiry. (It declined to indict in 2014.) But strategic delay should have been abandoned long before Pantaleo’s NYPD proceeding this year.
Regardless, the threshold of misconduct for someone to lose a job is not the same as what would be required to imprison. The city proceedings wrapped up last month, and the world waits to hear what recommendation is made to Police Commissioner James O’Neill. Will we even know?
It is infuriating that the outcome of that proceeding could technically be redacted by a very bad state civil rights law, 50-a, that hides police misconduct and is significant problem identifying troublesome officers on Long Island, too. That law prevented the release of Pantaleo’s disciplinary record, whose negatives have been hinted at only through a leak.
What needs to be done is simple: De Blasio and his administration must shake off the political caution he embraced after the tragic 2014 killings of two police officers in Brooklyn. Make a decision on Pantaleo’s future, and bring closure to Garner’s family and the city.
Selling loosie cigarettes should not be a death sentence. Eric Garner should be alive. — The editorial board