Early during Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate on CNN, protesters interrupted with chants of “Fire Pantaleo!"
That’s Daniel Pantaleo, the New York police officer who, five years ago, was shown on video wrapping his arm around the neck of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man. Garner died, and his death fueled a massive outcry and protests over law enforcement’s mistreatment of people of color.
The chants were directed at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the protesters accomplished bringing Garner’s death and the recent Justice Department announcement that it would not bring charges against Pantaleo or the other officers involved in the incident into the conversation onstage.
Activist Tamika Mallory, who was among the chanters Wednesday night, explained her protest, tweeting:
The mayor has been under great pressure from Garner’s family, activists, other politicians and the media to make sure justice is served — and, to most people, that means terminating Pantaleo. But it appears that the mayor has largely failed to act, instead waiting for federal and local investigations to play out.
According to the New York Daily News, Pantaleo will have a departmental hearing on his actions overseen by the assistant commissioner.
“The assistant commissioner at the NYPD who is in charge of the trials will issue an opinion — uh, a verdict, an opinion, a recommendation — to the commissioner and then Commissioner O’Neil makes the final decision,” he said. “So we’re going to respect that process.”
Other candidates made it clear that if they were in de Blasio’s shoes, Pantaleo would be out of work.
“Officer Pantaleo used a choke hold that was prohibited by NYPD,” former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro said. “He did that for seven seconds. Eleven different times, Eric Garner said he could not breathe. [Pantaleo] knew what he was doing. He was killing Eric Garner. And yet he was not brought to justice. That police officer should be off the street.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) agreed, telling moderator Jake Tapper: “He should be fired. He should be fired now.”
“If I was the mayor, I’d fire him,” Gillibrand added, while looking directly at de Blasio. “But as president, I would make sure that we had a full investigation, that the report would be made public and if I wasn’t satisfied, we would have a consent decree.”
De Blasio sought to communicate that he empathizes with the Garner family. “There’s finally going to be justice — I have confidence in that — in the next 30 days in New York,” he said. “For the first time, we are not waiting on the federal Justice Department, which told the city of New York that we could not proceed because the Justice Department was pursuing their prosecution, and years went by and a lot of pain accrued.
“And in the meantime, what I’m working on is making sure — and I have for five years — there will never be another tragedy. There will never be another Eric Garner because we’re changing fundamentally how we police.”
It is not clear what de Blasio’s words mean for Pantaleo.
Many activists and others believe relieving the officer of his duties is the next appropriate step.
However, Pantaleo remains on staff because Attorney General William P. Barr said his prosecutors could not prove that he committed a federal crime because they had insufficient evidence proving that Pantaleo used “objectively unreasonable” force and “willfully” used more force than he thought was necessary.
“We know and understand that some will be disappointed by this decision, but it is the conclusion that is compelled by the evidence and the law,” Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said at a news conference in July.
Gillibrand and Castro said that would not have stopped them. And it will not stop protesters from calling for Pantaleo’s termination, or a renewed scrutiny of whatever determination de Blasio comes to.