After receiving the recommendation to fire Pantaleo, NYPD officials suspended him Friday, as their in-house disciplinary process is likely to take several weeks.
The recommendation follows a weeks-long internal NYPD trial to determine if Pantaleo, 33, broke department rules.
“This has been a long battle, five years too long,” said Emerald Garner, one of Eric Garner’s daughters. “And finally somebody has said that there’s some information that this cop did something wrong.” She urged that Pantaleo be fired as soon as possible.
Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, blamed public pressure for the recommendation. “Not only did he do nothing wrong, but he acted the way he was taught to act,” said London. “If you call this reckless assault then almost any arrest would be reckless assault.”
The head of the NYPD, Commissioner James O’Neill, will decide whether to act on the recommendation, but Pantaleo has the option to resign in a bid to keep his pension benefits.
Fred Davie, chairman of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, which pursues abuse complaints against NYPD officers, said the evidence the board’s lawyers presented at Pantaleo’s department trial “was more than sufficient to prove that Pantaleo is unfit to serve.”
Under NYPD disciplinary procedures, the complaint review board and Pantaleo’s lawyers will be allowed to make comments before the final findings by the NYPD disciplinary judge are sent to O’Neill. That will likely give Pantaleo weeks to decide if he would rather retire with benefits or risk being fired.
“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,” NYPD spokesman Phillip Walzak said.
Patrick J. Lynch, head of the Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents New York City officers, called Garner’s death “a tragedy” for Garner and the officers involved, and he attacked the mayor for what he called a political decision.
“New York City police officers will now be considered reckless every time they put their hands on someone. That’s what the job is,” Lynch insisted. “We now have a frozen police department.”
Lynch warned that, if O’Neill fires Pantaleo, O’Neill will lose the support of rank-and-file officers.
The Garner case was one of the first to spark the Black Lives Matter movement and draw attention to police conduct toward people of color, but it ended as most others do, with prosecutors offering condolences in lieu of indictments and distraught family members left feeling that justice was not served.
The case gained national attention in large part because Garner’s death was recorded on video. The recording shows Pantaleo and other officers taking Garner down to the sidewalk, as Garner cried out that he couldn’t breathe. Federal prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence that the officer acted “willfully” to use more force than he thought was necessary — a legal standard for filing federal civil rights charges.
The senior medical examiner on the Garner case concluded that he had died of a chokehold, an important distinction because the NYPD does not allow the use of chokeholds to subdue suspects.
At the departmental trial, Pantaleo’s lawyer argued that the officer did not use a chokehold, nor did he violate NYPD procedures in making the arrest.
The incident began when Pantaleo moved to arrest Garner for selling “loosies” — single cigarettes.
The Garner case exposed divisions even inside the Justice Department, where New York prosecutors and FBI agents felt charges were not warranted, while civil rights division prosecutors at Justice Department headquarters argued for an indictment of Pantaleo.
After the Justice Department announced its decision, the Garner family demanded that city officials fire Pantaleo, who had been on desk duty for years while awaiting a decision on administrative discipline.
New York mayor Bill de Blasio blamed the Justice Department for the long delay in a decision, saying the city deferred to federal authorities while they conducted their criminal investigation.
“Until today, the Garner family has been failed by this entire process,” de Blasio told reporters. “Today, we finally saw a step toward justice and accountability. . . . But full justice means that there can never be another tragedy like the one that befell Eric Garner. Full justice is when we never have another death.”
De Blasio said the NYPD had made sweeping changes in the wake of Garner’s death, retraining its 36,000-officer force and striving to de-escalate conflict.
The city of New York reached a civil settlement with Garner’s family in 2015 for $5.9 million.