The Justice Department will not bring federal charges against a New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner, ending a yearslong inquiry into a case that sharply divided officials and prompted national protests over excessive force by police, according to two people briefed on the decision.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn intend to announce the decision not to bring civil rights or criminal charges Tuesday, just one day before the fifth anniversary of Garner’s death. That is the deadline by which they would have to file some of the possible charges against the officer, Daniel Pantaleo.
The decision extinguishes the hopes of the Garner family and their supporters that Pantaleo might face prosecution in a case that ignited demonstrations and debates over the use of force by police officers and led to changes in policing practices across the United States.
In June, the Police Department finished a disciplinary trial to determine if Pantaleo should be fired or punished in some other way for using what appeared to be a chokehold, which the department had banned more than two decades ago.
It is ultimately up to Commissioner James P. O’Neill, as the final arbiter of police discipline, to decide whether to fire Pantaleo or take less drastic action. But he will not make a formal decision until the police administrative judge who oversaw the disciplinary trial renders her verdict.
Pantaleo, 34, has been on desk duty without a shield or a gun since Garner died, a status that has allowed him to accrue pay and pension benefits.
Garner, who was 43, died on a Staten Island sidewalk July 17, 2014, after Pantaleo wrapped an arm around his neck from behind and took him to the ground and other officers put their weight on him, compressing his chest against the pavement. A medical examiner testified at the disciplinary hearing that the pressure on Garner’s neck and chest set in motion a fatal asthma attack.
Some bystanders captured video of the attack on their cellphones, recording Garner as he gasped “I can’t breathe,” dying words that became a rallying cry for protesters across the nation.
His death was one of several fatal encounters between black people and police, including the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a month later, that catalyzed the national Black Lives Matter movement.
None of the New York officers involved in Garner’s death have been charged with a crime or disciplined by the Police Department, a fact that has enraged the Garner family and various advocacy groups devoted to holding the police accountable for abuses of power.
Garner’s family members — including his mother, Gwen Carr, and his widow, Esaw Snipes — were scheduled to meet with federal prosecutors and the Rev. Al Sharpton on Tuesday, according to a statement from Sharpton. Prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York were scheduled to announce the decision after that meeting.
A state grand jury declined to bring charges against Pantaleo in December 2014, after the police officer testified in his own defense that he did not put Garner into a chokehold, a maneuver that is prohibited by the New York Police Department, and that he feared that he would be pushed through a storefront window during the struggle.
But a federal investigation into Garner’s death proceeded, sharply dividing the Justice Department under four attorneys general and two presidents.
The attorney general at the time of the death, Eric Holder, said that evidence strongly suggested that the federal government should bring charges against Pantaleo, even though it is notoriously hard to prosecute police officers for deaths in custody and the government might lose.
While career civil rights prosecutors agreed with Holder, prosecutors under the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Loretta Lynch, sharply disagreed. Pantaleo had testified that he intended to put Garner into a takedown hold that would not restrict his breathing and that it was not clear whether the dead man’s civil rights had been violated.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn and in Washington also disagreed about whether a passerby’s cellphone video supported Pantaleo’s account.
After Lynch succeeded Holder in April 2015, officials including the head of the civil rights division, Vanita Gupta, worked to convince her that the officers had used excessive force and had likely violated Garner’s civil rights.
Lynch allowed the civil rights division to take a lead role in the case, and the following September the department replaced the FBI agents and prosecutors who had been working on the case with a new team from outside of New York.
But the case stalled again after Donald Trump won the presidential election and appointed Jeff Sessions as his attorney general. Civil rights division prosecutors recommended that charges be brought, and they asked the deputy attorney general at the time, Rod Rosenstein, about indicting Pantaleo.
But Rosenstein did not allow the department to move forward on an indictment, and many officials said they believed that there was a good chance that the government would lose the case should it go to trial.
The last time the federal government brought a deadly force case against a New York police officer was in 1998, when Officer Francis X. Livoti stood trial on — and was eventually convicted of — civil rights charges in the choking death of a Bronx man named Anthony Baez.
Federal prosecutors signaled they were still interested in the case as recently as June, when Elizabeth Geddes, the head of the civil rights unit that covers Staten Island, appeared at the disciplinary hearing for Pantaleo. She left the proceedings at police headquarters in Manhattan after it became clear that Pantaleo would not testify.
At the hearing, Pantaleo faced charges of recklessly using a chokehold on Garner and intentionally restricting his breathing. Prosecutors from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police oversight agency, argued that he should be fired; his attorney, Stuart London, maintained that the officer did nothing wrong, but used a technique taught in the police academy known as the seat belt maneuver, not a chokehold.