Federal prosecutors have requested to meet Tuesday with the family of Eric Garner, suggesting officials have decided whether to charge any of the New York City police officers involved in the recorded takedown that led to Garner’s death and sparked a national outcry.
The meeting will come just one day before the five-year anniversary of Garner’s death, after which the statute of limitations will preclude prosectors from bringing some civil rights charges against the officers involved in the incident. The U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn is scheduled to discuss the matter at a news conference set for 11 a.m. Tuesday. Garner’s family members are also scheduled to appear at a news conference after meeting with prosecutors.
It was not immediately clear what message prosecutors intend to deliver. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment. Those at the 10 a.m. meeting will include Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, according to people familiar with the matter and an announcement from Sharpton’s National Action Network. In a news release, the National Action Network said Sharpon; Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother; Esaw Snipes, Garner’s widow and the mother of his children; and Garner’s attorneys would appear at a news conference afterward.
Garner died in 2014, but the federal investigation into the matter has languished for years as various components of the Justice Department disagreed about what to do.
Civil rights prosecutors had vigorously advocated bringing charges in the case, though they met fierce resistance from their counterparts at the FBI in New York and, at least in the past, the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn.
The Justice Department ultimately removed New York FBI agents from the team of investigators, and — soon before leaving office — Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch authorized the department to move forward. But the decision came so late in her tenure that it was impossible to take all the steps necessary to procure an indictment before President Trump’s appointed Justice Department leaders came in. When they did, the case continued to stall.
Substantiating federal civil rights charges against police officers for on-the-job incidents can be challenging. Prosecutors must present evidence that speaks to an officer’s intent, and it is not enough for them merely to show that an officer acted negligently or recklessly.
In Garner’s case, too, a Staten Island grand jury also declined to bring charges. And while federal prosecutors could still pursue the case independently, the FBI’s initial skepticism was documented in internal records, potentially complicating a future trial, current and former law enforcement officials said.
Garner initially drew the attention of police for selling loose cigarettes and was ultimately wrestled to the ground by officers in an encounter that was caught on video. His gasps of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for those advocating change in how police treat minorities.
The federal investigation focused on New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was among those taking Garner to the ground. He was put on desk duty and this summer went through an internal administrative process to determine what discipline he should face. Stuart London, his lawyer, declined to comment for this story.
Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill is expected to make a decision on his fate with the police department soon. The city of New York reached a civil settlement with Garner’s family in 2015 for $5.9 million.