Civil rights advocates reacted with dismay over the Martin Luther King Day weekend to reports that the Obama administration will not take action to charge or clear police in Eric Garner’s videotaped 2014 choking death before leaving office this week.
“We are certainly disappointed,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a telephone interview after joining Garner’s mother in a civil-rights march in Washington, D.C., Saturday. “This happened over two years ago. Our hope was, it would have been concluded before now.”
“The system has failed Eric Garner and his family once again,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, who last week joined seven other New York members of Congress in a letter urging Attorney General Loretta Lynch to bring charges.
Garner, 43, died in July 2014 on Staten Island when NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo grabbed him around the neck and dragged him to the ground during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes. Pantaleo maintained the hold as Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe.” NYPD rules ban so-called chokeholds.
In December 2014, a grand jury led by the Staten Island district attorney’s office declined to indict, opening the door for a federal probe. Federal charges require proof that Pantaleo intended to violate Garner’s rights.
Late last year, amid opposition to bringing charges among New York federal prosecutors, sources said the case had been assigned to the Justice Department’s civil rights division in Washington. But on Friday, a Washington Post report said a decision by Lynch to approve moving forward with a case came too late for the Justice Department to get an indictment.
The Justice Department has declined to comment on that report, describing the investigation as “ongoing.” Lawyers for the Garner family and Pantaleo have not commented since the report.
Norman Siegel, a former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that if Lynch takes no action, charges are unlikely under her probable successor, conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who said at his confirmation hearings that police were “unfairly maligned” and promised them his support.
“Given who he is and his voting record, I will be pleasantly surprised if there are charges,” Siegel said. “More likely this will end where it is now. It just leads to increased public cynicism and alienation.”
Lynch did not mention Garner during a farewell tour last week that included stops in Baltimore and Chicago to announce initiatives on systemic reforms in those cities’ police practices — efforts she has described as a hallmark of her tenure.
But Siegel said systemic change and individual prosecutions are “equally important,” and after two years, a failure to act on Garner would show a “lack of leadership.”
“It does give the appearance they do not want to make a final judgment on a controversial issue and they’re handing it off to the Trump administration,” he said. “Because of the visibility and symbolism of the Eric Garner case, you can’t just leave it hanging it in the air.”