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Officer in Eric Garner's death should be fired, NYPD judge says

Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses the media Friday after an administrative judge recommended firing the NYPD officer accused of using a chokehold in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in police custody. (Credit: AM New York / Shelby Knowles)

A New York Police Department administrative judge on Friday recommended that Daniel Pantaleo, the white police officer who used a fatal chokehold on an unarmed black man during an arrest in 2014, be fired, a city oversight body said.

Pantaleo had been on desk duty since he was seen in widely viewed cellphone videos using a banned chokehold on Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk during an attempted arrest. Pantaleo's lawyers had argued he used an approved "seat belt" technique to subdue Garner, who refused to be handcuffed after officers accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes.

Rosemarie Maldonado, a deputy police commissioner who oversees disciplinary hearings, reached her verdict after overseeing Pantaleo's disciplinary trial earlier this year.

The NYPD suspended Pantaleo following Maldonado's decision, which is standard practice when the recommendation is termination. Police Commissioner James O'Neill is not expected to make a decision until after the comment period for the prosecution and defense is completed, and the official report is released later this month.

"All of New York City understandably seeks closure to this difficult chapter in our city’s history. Premature statements or judgments before the process is complete however cannot and will not be made," NYPD deputy commissioner of public information Phillip Walzak said in a statement. "In order to protect the integrity of the trial proceedings and conclusion, the NYPD will not comment further until the police commissioner makes the final determination."

Videos taken by bystanders showed Garner crying out "I can't breathe" at least 11 times before he fell unconscious. The medical examiner's office said a chokehold contributed to Garner's death.

Pantaleo initially tried to use two approved restraint tactics on Garner, who was much larger at 6-foot-2 and about 400 pounds, but ended up wrapping his arm around Garner's neck for about seven seconds as they struggled against a glass storefront window and fell to the sidewalk.

The officer was stripped of his gun and put on desk duty after the incident but continued to draw a hefty salary since Garner's death, with his pay peaking at more than $120,000 in 2017, according to city payroll records.

Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to say Friday whether he thinks Pantaleo should be fired. However, he said the judge's recommendation "is only the beginning of restoring people's faith."

"Today, we finally saw a step toward justice and accountability," de Blasio said. "We saw a process that was actually fair and impartial. And I hope that this will now bring the Garner family a sense of closure and the beginning of some peace."

De Blasio has faced criticism and protests over continuing to employ Pantaleo, and those protests continued Friday at a news conference at City Hall where he was interrupted by "fire Pantaleo" chants.

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch blasted the judge's recommendation on Friday afternoon.

"The decision that was passed down today, saying that this police officer is reckless, is ludicrous," said Lynch, who believes firing Pantaleo will have a chilling effect on officers. "New York City police officers now will be considered reckless every time they put their hands on someone," he said.

Garner's family welcomed Maldonado's ruling but said it took far too long.

"This has been a long battle, five years too long," Emerald Snipes Garner, one of Garner's daughters, said at a news conference alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton. "And finally, somebody has said that there is some information that this cop has done something wrong."

Sharpton said O'Neill should fire Pantaleo "immediately and unequivocally."

"This is not justice for the Garner family, because justice for the Garner family would have been a federal proceeding or a criminal proceeding in the local court," Sharpton said. 

De Blasio has said he regrets his decision to postpone disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo for what would become several years while a U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation was ongoing.

He reversed course last year, saying he would no longer wait for the Justice Department, and ordered the police department to begin the internal disciplinary trial. 

During that trial, prosecutors from the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board, an oversight agency, argued that Pantaleo should be fired for using a banned chokehold. Pantaleo's lawyers argued that Garner himself, not the officer, was to blame for his death, and that Pantaleo followed his training and orders from senior police.

"The evidence the CCRB’s prosecutors brought forth at trial was more than sufficient to prove that Pantaleo is unfit to serve," CCRB Chairman Fred Davie said in a statement. "Commissioner O’Neill must uphold this verdict and dismiss Pantaleo from the department, as was recommended by both the CCRB and the Deputy Commissioner of Trials."

In July, the Justice Department announced it had closed its civil rights investigation without bringing any criminal charges, nearly five years after a grand jury in Staten Island declined to indict Pantaleo on state charges for Garner's death.

With Reuters, Matthew Chayes and Anthony M. DeStefano


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