Eric Garner decision: NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo fired, but justice still denied for Garner's family

It took five years for officials to finally acknowledge what activists and politicians and Garner's loved ones have been saying for years.
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Demonstrators hold signs calling on New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to fire police officer Daniel Pantaleo during a rally outside New York Police Department headquarters on Aug. 2, 2019.Mary Altaffer / AP file
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By Paul Butler, author of "Chokehold: Policing Black Men"

Does justice delayed for five years still count as justice? Is losing your job sufficient punishment for homicide? Of course not. But when cops are the criminals, and people of color are the victims of their abuse, often there is no equal justice under the law.

Five years is how long it took for the New York Police Department to suspend Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold, a discredited law enforcement maneuver in which pressure is put on the subject’s neck to force compliance. NYPD officers have been banned from using chokeholds since 1993, because of the high risk of strangulation. (Pantaleo denies using a chokehold.)

Five years is how long it took for someone to finally acknowledge what activists and politicians had been saying for years: That at the very least, Pantaleo did not deserve to serve as a police officer in New York.

Five years is how long it took for officials — a New York administrative judge, and on Monday, New York's police commissioner — to finally acknowledge what activists and politicians had been saying for years: that at the very least, Pantaleo did not deserve to serve as a police officer in New York.

In July 2014, Pantaleo was arresting Garner for allegedly selling “loosies” — untaxed single cigarettes — in a park in Staten Island. Garner put his hands up, and the whole world has seen what happened next. Several officers tackled Garner, knocking him to the ground, where Pantaleo restrained Garner by placing his hands on Garner’s neck. Garner said “I can’t breathe” 11 times and then died on the hard, concrete street.

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Two weeks later, the New York Medical Examiner ruled that Garner’s death was a homicide, caused by compression of his neck and chest by the arresting officers. In December 2014, a Staten Island grand jury declined to bring charges against Pantaleo.

And then, nothing happened. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has maintained that removing Pantaleo from the police force had to wait until the Justice Department determined whether to prosecute the officer for federal civil rights violations. Thus, the NYPD placed Pantaleo on desk duty, where he languished for the last five years, earning up to $120,000 annually.

De Blasio’s claim is false: The NYPD was not required to wait for the feds to act. In fact, the delay in disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo made it more difficult to remove him from the force. If the city had moved to fire Pantaleo shortly after Garner’s death, it would have had to prove only that Pantaleo violated department regulations by using the banned chokehold. Now the statute of limitations requires proof that Pantaleo committed a crime.

De Blasio, whose promise to reform the NYPD got him elected mayor, now has the nerve to seek the Democratic nomination for president. He richly deserves the strong criticisms for his intransigence in the Garner case that have follows him on the campaign trail.

De Blasio, whose promise to reform the NYPD got him elected mayor, now has the nerve to seek the Democratic nomination for president.

Eric Garner’s family, ultimately, will most likely never get true justice for their loved one. On Aug. 2, Pantaleo was suspended, after an administrative law judge issued a 47-page opinion finding that the disgraced officer recklessly used excessive force against Garner, even though Pantaleo knew that his actions risked killing Garner, and that the chokehold maneuver used was against regulations. Pantaleo had two weeks to respond to the judge’s findings, but the final decision rested with Commissioner James O’Neill.

But Pantaleo’s firing on Monday may be the only consequence the veteran officer faces. Last month, the Justice Department announced that there would be no federal charges against Pantaleo. Career prosecutors in the civil rights division had recommended criminal charges but they were overruled by Attorney General William Barr. This is a consistent but troubling pattern in the Trump administration, which has brought 60 percent fewer civil rights cases than the Obama administration and 50 percent fewer than the George W. Bush administration.

Pantaleo’s fate aside, transforming the NYPD will be a tough and long process. Since Garner’s death, there have been 820 complaints alleging that NYPD officers placed suspects in illegal chokeholds. Fewer than 2 percent of those officers have been disciplined, and none have been fired. The small numbers of officers who have faced any sanctions have been assigned remedial training or docked vacation pay. Pantaleo’s dismissal makes him only the second New York City officer ever to lose his job for using the deadly procedure.

Some of the necessary reforms are obvious. The police should not be allowed to use deadly force to arrest anyone for a minor crime like selling an untaxed cigarette. The NYPD must be quicker to resolve complaints of excessive force and other police abuse. An officer who publicly complained about de Blasio was quickly punished with losing eight vacation days. Contrast that with 40 recent cases in which allegations of illegal chokeholds have been officially verified by authorities. Only 10 of those officers are known to have been disciplined.

In the Garner case, serious questions remain. Why haven’t any of the other officers who watched Garner expire on the street without doing anything been disciplined? The sad truth is that the only person connected to the Garner case who has gone to jail is Ramsey Orta — the man who used his cellphone to make the video of Garner’s homicide.

The day Eric Garner was killed, one of the officers on the scene texted his boss, Lt. Christopher Bannon, to let him know Garner was probably dead. Bannon texted back, “Not a big deal.” For the last five years, that’s how Garner’s death has been treated by too many government officials.