NEW YORK — The New York City police officer whose chokehold was partly blamed for Eric Garner’s death in police custody in 2014 was fired from the Police Department on Monday, ending a bitter, five-year legal battle that had cast a shadow over the nation’s largest police force and the city it protects.
Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill dismissed the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, just over two weeks after a police administrative judge found him guilty of violating a department ban on chokeholds.
“The unintended consequence of Mr. Garner’s death must have a consequence of its own,” O’Neill said. “Therefore I agree with the deputy commissioner of trial’s legal findings and recommendations. It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”
The leader of the city’s largest police union immediately denounced the decision, saying O’Neill had bowed to “anti-police extremists” and that Pantaleo’s dismissal sent a message that the city did not stand behind its officers when they make arrests.
“We are urging all New York City police officers to proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job,” the Police Benevolent Association president, Patrick J. Lynch, said in a statement. “We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardizing our careers or personal safety.”
Garner’s family said it would continue to press for congressional hearings into his death and for state legislation making it a crime for a police officer to use a chokehold. They also continued to call for other officers involved in Garner’s arrest to be punished for their actions.
“For Commissioner O’Neill, I thank you for doing the right thing,” said Emerald Snipes Garner, Eric Garner’s daughter, at a news conference. “You finally made a decision that should have been made five years ago.”
Eric Garner died July 17, 2014, after Pantaleo tackled him from behind, then, along with other officers, pressed him down on the pavement. Captured on video, the arrest and Garner’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.
The case had defined the Police Department’s relationship with the public under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned for office on a promise to reverse the aggressive policing of low-level crimes — known as the “broken windows” strategy — that his predecessor had championed. The mayor had come under intense criticism for not pushing to have Pantaleo fired sooner.
Some elected officials and critics of the Police Department say those policies, which affected black and Latino neighborhoods disproportionately, are partly to blame for Garner’s death.
For many people across the country, Pantaleo became a symbol of long-standing problems with how the police treat people, mostly black and Latino, suspected of low-level crimes. Garner died as he was being arrested on charges of selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island.
After Garner’s death, the Police Department scaled back the heavy enforcement of low-level crimes. But Pantaleo’s continued employment on the police force still infuriated Garner’s family and their supporters. They lobbied for the officer to be fired and stripped of his pension, and put pressure on de Blasio to make it happen.
Under the City Charter and state law, however, the decision to fire Pantaleo ultimately belonged to O’Neill, not the mayor.
Speaking to reporters at Police Headquarters, O’Neill said he had tried to be fair and impartial and to make the decision without regard to political considerations. He noted that Pantaleo had been sent to arrest Garner as part of an effort to stop drug dealing and other crime around Tompkinsville Park on Staten Island.
O’Neill said had he been in Pantaleo’s place, he might have made the same mistakes and that Garner set the tragedy in motion by resisting arrest. Still, the commissioner said, Pantaleo did not relax his grip on Garner’s neck after the men fell to the ground, and his recklessness triggered a fatal asthma attack.
The commissioner also acknowledged many rank-and-file officers would be angered by his decision, noting he had been a police officer for decades before becoming commissioner.
“If I were still a cop, I would probably be mad at me,” he said.
A Staten Island grand jury and federal civil rights prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo, igniting protests.
Besides Pantaleo, Garner’s family has pointed out that there are at least 11 other officers who should be held accountable for their actions leading up to Garner’s death and the aftermath. Only one — Sgt. Kizzy Adonis, who was the first supervisor to arrive on the scene — faces discipline.
Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, was expected to challenge the decision in court. London and the Police Benevolent Association have long accused de Blasio of sacrificing Pantaleo to satisfy public anger that threatens the mayor’s political ambitions.
Pantaleo had been suspended without pay since Aug. 2, when a department judge, Deputy Commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado, found him guilty of reckless assault following an administrative trial at Police Headquarters.
Perhaps more than anything, Pantaleo’s departure signaled the city’s pivot from depending on aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses to fight overall crime to relying on officers’ problem-solving skills and their ability to build mutual trust with residents.
O’Neill designed the current crime-fighting strategy, called neighborhood policing, in his previous role as Chief of Department and has said he wants it to be his legacy.
In 2014, police supervisors on Staten Island targeted Garner for arrest in response to orders from headquarters to address neighborhood complaints about people illegally selling untaxed, loose cigarettes.
The directive was part of an the broken-windows policy championed by O’Neill’s predecessor, William J. Bratton, which relied on cracking down on activities that police believed diminished the quality-of-life in order to prevent serious crime.
Maldonado affirmed in her 46-page decision what many people, including federal prosecutors, believe the video plainly showed: Pantaleo’s initial grip on Garner slipped as the two men grappled and became a chokehold, which the department banned two decades ago.
Maldonado said in her report that the video of the July 17, 2014, encounter and an autopsy that found fresh hemorrhaging in Garner’s neck muscles provided “overwhelming” evidence that Pantaleo had used a chokehold despite being trained not to.
Pantaleo’s “use of a chokehold,” she wrote, “fell so far short of objective reasonableness that this tribunal found it to be reckless — a gross deviation from the standard of conduct established for a New York City police officer.”
The judge also found Pantaleo was untruthful when he later denied to Internal Affairs investigators that he had used a chokehold, saying his explanation was “implausible and self-serving.”
But, like the local grand jury and federal prosecutors before her, she did not find evidence that the chokehold was intentional.
The city’s largest police union criticized the decision as “pure political insanity.” Lynch had said that if O’Neill adopted the judge’s recommendation, he “will lose his Police Department.”