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NYPD may open investigation into Eric Garner's death, letter says

The NYPD will begin the probe if the Department of Justice doesn't file charges by Aug. 31.

The NYPD may open its own investigation into

The NYPD may open its own investigation into the death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

The NYPD said Monday it will open internal disciplinary proceedings in the 2014 videotaped choking death of Eric Garner in police custody if federal officials don’t reveal by Aug. 31 whether they intend to bring a criminal case against any officers involved.

In a two-page letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, top NYPD lawyer Lawrence Byrne said that based on his recent conversations with federal investigators, “It has become clear that a definite date by which time a final decision by the [Justice Department] will be rendered in this matter cannot be predicted.”

The NYPD previously deferred taking any disciplinary action in the case until federal prosecutors, both in Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., decided whether they intended to bring a criminal case over Garner’s July 17, 2014 death. Garner, 43, died after being taken into police custody for the alleged sale of untaxed cigarettes in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island.

The city medical examiner determined that Garner died of “compression of neck (choke hold)” and “compression of chest” while police restrained him. Garner’s obesity and asthma contributed to his death, officials said.

Faced with what Byrne said was “impatience” by the Garner family and the public with inaction by the NYPD regarding disciplinary proceedings, department officials came to the conclusion there was no justification for additional delay.

As a result, if the Department of Justice officials don’t announce plans to open a criminal case by the end of August, the NYPD will begin disciplinary proceedings, Byrne said in his letter. He told reporters the Civilian Complaint Review Board will prosecute any administrative case in the NYPD trial room.

At a Harlem news conference, with the Rev. Al Sharpton, Garner’s mother Gwen Carr, of Staten Island, expressed optimism about the NYPD plans but wants “to see this done swiftly.”

“We don’t want to see politics,” a steadfast Carr said.

The NYPD should have begun disciplinary proceedings “a long time ago,” Sharpton said, “but we are glad this is happening.”

Two disciplinary cases held up by the delay involve NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo and Sgt. Kizzy Adonis. An amateur video showed Pantaleo grappling with Garner, putting the Staten Island man in an apparent choke hold. Adonis, who faced administrative charges of failure to supervise in the confrontation, was placed on modified assignment in January 2016 and returned to full duty in May, officials said. Pantaleo has not been served with any charges and is currently on modified duty.

Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, referred comments on the matter to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, whose president Patrick Lynch said in a statement that federal officials should end a “highly irregular fishing expedition by those seeking an indictment at all costs.”

Complaint review board chairman Fred Davie said in a statement the agency “stands ready to prosecute Officer Pantaleo as it does in cases in which the Board substantiates misconduct against a member of the NYPD and recommends Charges and Specifications.”

After a Staten Island grand jury in late 2014 declined to indict any officers in Garner’s death, the case became part of a national protest about police treatment of black men. Street protests followed, as did criticism of a system activists said allowed local prosecutors who depend on police to make decisions about prosecuting them. Garner’s cries of “I can’t breathe!” became a mantra for his supporters.

The NYPD announcement Monday triggered more bureaucratic controversy. After the release of Byrne’s letter, a Department of Justice spokesman shot back that federal officials told the NYPD in the spring the department could move forward with its disciplinary proceedings.

Bryne’s letter wouldn’t have any bearing on the decision timeline at the Justice Department, the spokesman said, declining to comment further.

NYPD spokesman Phil Walzak said the department wasn’t provided with any green light in the spring to move forward with disciplinary action.

In a meeting with reporters, Byrne said the decision in the case rests at the level of Attorney General Jeff Sessions or deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.

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