Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer seen on video using a chokehold during Eric Garner’s deadly arrest five years ago — sparking mass protests and becoming a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement — was fired by the department on Monday.
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced he’ll enforce an administrative judge’s recommendation, made this month, that Pantaleo be terminated over the July 17, 2014, confrontation as Garner was being arrested on Staten Island for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Pantaleo, who has been with the NYPD since 2006, was suspended as soon as that departmental verdict was reached, in keeping with long-standing practice when there is a recommendation for firing. The 13-year veteran had been on desk duty as his case made its way through legal and administrative circles.
“It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer,” O’Neill announced.
“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 the police department who put their own lives on the line every single day in service to people of this great city.”
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O’Neill said Pantaleo was properly making an arrest, up to the point where he had Garner on the ground but still had a forearm on the man’s throat.
“Had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation I may have made similar mistakes,” O’Neill said. “I would have wished I had released my grip before it became a chokehold.”
O’Neill also heaped blame on Garner himself, saying he was wrong to have resisted arrest.
“Every time I watch that video I say to myself … ‘to Mr. Garner, don’t do it. Comply. Officer Pantaleo, don’t do it,'” the commissioner said.
“I say that about the decisions made by both Officer Pantaleo and Mr. Garner. But none of us can’t take back our decisions.”
Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, said his client “is disappointed, upset but has a lot of strength and wants to go forward.”
Pantaleo plans to fight his termination under Article 78, a New York civil code that sets a path for challenges to rulings by a government agency.
“After the Article 78, if we need to appeal beyond that we will,” London said. “We are looking for him to get his job back.”
If the termination stands, Pantaleo would still be entitled to all pension benefits he had accrued through Monday, according to O’Neill.
And O’Neill admitted that if he were still an officer in uniform — as he’d been for 34 years before taking charge of America’s biggest municipal police force — he too would be upset with this decision.
“I’ve been a cop a long time and if I was still a cop, I’d probably be mad at me. ‘You’re not looking out for us,’ but I am,” O’Neill said.
“It’s my responsibility as police commissioner to look out for the city and certainly to look out for New York City police officers. They took this job to make a difference. You all know the city has been transformed — had a lot of help, but it’s the cops out there right now and the thousands that have come before who continue to make this city safe.”
Emerald Snipes Garner, one of Eric Garner’s daughter, thanked the family’s supporters and O’Neill for his decision on Monday.
“Commissioner O’Neill, I thank you for doing the right thing,” she told reporters during a press conference at the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network. “I truly, sincerely thank you for firing the officer, regardless to however you came up to your decision. You finally made the decision that should’ve been made by five years ago.”
Garner’s loved ones and NAN’s founder, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is also an MSNBC host, said they’ll push lawmakers to make the chokehold illegal, and not just a violation of any individual department’s internal policy.
“We can’t talk about what happened in the past,” Emerald Snipes Garner said. “We can only talk about what we’re gonna do to move forward.”
And while O’Neill said he found fault in Garner’s actions, Emerald Snipes Garner said she had a different take: “When I watch the video, I see my father being killed.”
Pantaleo’s termination seemed to be in the cards for weeks.
The NYPD’s No. 2 official, First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, accepted the judge’s ruling that Pantaleo should be fired, two law enforcement officials familiar with the case told NBC New York last week.
Tucker reviewed the findings and had passed them on to O’Neill for his final review, sources said. Tucker reportedly found no new evidence to reverse the judge’s decision.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the NYPD’s administrative process led to the correct result.
“We watched a fair and impartial trial. We watched an objective decision by a deputy commissioner of the NYPD, affirmed by the first deputy commissioner and affirmed by the police commissioner,” the mayor told reporters at City Hal. “Justice has been done. And that decision has resulted in the termination of officer Pantaleo.”
The mayor conceded O’Neill’s ruling might not mean much to Garner’s loved ones.
“For the Garner family, which has gone through so much agony for so long, and has waited this long just to have one trial finally conclude with a decision, I hope today brings some small measure of closure,” the mayor added.
The New York Civil Liberties Union fell well short of praising O’Neill’s ruling.
“It may be tempting to call this justice, but it’s not,” it said in a statement. “We cannot lower our standards just because the NYPD has kept the bar so low.”
Patrick J. Lynch, president of the city’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, last week warned O’Neill that Pantaleo’s termination would be a blow to the morale of his members.
Minutes after the police commissioner announced his ruling on Monday, Lynch said O’Neill had permanently lost the confidence of officers on the beat.
“The NYPD will remain rudderless and frozen, and Commissioner O’Neill will never be able to bring it back,” Lynch said in a statement.
“Now it is time for every police officer in this city to make their own choice. We are urging all New York City police officer 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.”
Monday’s announcement by O’Neill marked the first formal, government action that went in favor of Garner’s loved ones in their yearslong pursuit of criminal, civil or career consequences for Pantaleo.
A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo and, this summer, the Justice Department said it would not bring federal civil rights or criminal charges against him.
Pantaleo was among two officers who were initially confronting Garner, 43, about his alleged sale of cigarettes in an incident captured on bystander Ramsey Orta’s cellphone.
As back-up arrived, Pantaleo jumped on Garner’s back, wrapped his left forearm around the suspect’s neck and rode him to the pavement.
Four other officers came to assist Pantaleo, as he shoved Garner’s face into the sidewalk, all while the 6-foot-2, roughly 400-pound man repeatedly pleaded: “I can’t breathe.”
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York ruled Garner’s death a homicide based on compression of his neck and chest. Though the forensic investigators also said Garner’s acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and heart disease were contributing factors.
About five months after Garner’s death, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo based on the evidence presented by the office of then-District Attorney Dan Donovan.
The borough’s top prosecutor, Donovan, insisted he presented all the evidence — though transcripts of grand jury proceedings have never been released.
And earlier this summer, federal prosecutors ended their five-year-long probe of the matter and elected not to pursue any civil rights charges against Pantaleo.
Attorney General William Barr made the final decision not to charge Pantaleo, choosing to follow recommendations of Brooklyn prosecutors, a senior Justice Department official told NBC News in July.
At Pantaleo’s departmental trial, his defense insisted the officer did not employ a chokehold, which is banned by the NYPD. Instead, Pantaleo’s defense argued he was using “seatbelt” move, wrapping arms around a suspect’s shoulders to bring an arrest.
“I can’t breathe” became a chant for protests that summer and beyond for Black Lives Matter activists.
Garner’s death came less than a month before Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African American man, was fatally shot by police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
Garner and Brown’s deaths became flash points for coast-to-coast protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Staffers working for members of the Congressional Black Caucus staged a walkout on Dec. 11, 2014, in protest of Garner and Brown’s deaths — and the lack of local prosecution of the police officers involved.
Earlier this summer, New York City reached a $5.9 million settlement with Garner’s family, which had sued for wrongful death.
“Today is a day of reckoning, but it can also be a day of reconciliation,” O’Neill said. “We must move forward together as one city determined to secure safety for all New Yorkers and safety for every police officer working daily to protect all of us.”