For years, the police department has held off disciplining the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, on the grounds that departmental charges had to wait until a federal civil rights investigation into Garner’s death had ended. But federal prosecutors told police officials Wednesday they would no longer object to the police department taking action, police officials said.
“They confirmed to me for the first time that at this point they don’t have an objection to us proceeding,” said Lawrence Byrne, the police department’s deputy commissioner for legal matters.
Byrne said the trials for Pantaleo and a supervisor, Sgt. Kizzy Adonis, would likely not start before the beginning of 2019, Byrne said.
The yearslong federal investigation and the delays in disciplinary proceedings have worn down the family of Garner. Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck tightly as Garner begged for breath during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island, New York, sidewalk. An autopsy showed Garner, who was in poor health, died from the chokehold and the compression of his chest during his arrest.
A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges. Since then the federal investigation has dragged on.
Pantaleo will be administratively prosecuted by lawyers from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an outside oversight agency that looks into police wrongdoing. The review board found in 2017 that Pantaleo used a prohibited chokehold on Garner and recommended departmental charges that could lead to suspension or dismissal. Board officials said Thursday they had already begun the process of filing charges.
Adonis was one of the first supervisors on the scene of Garner’s arrest. She has already been charged administratively with failing to properly oversee her officers, though the disciplinary proceedings against her were paused out of deference to the federal investigation.
The disciplinary proceedings were kick-started by a letter Monday from Byrne to the Justice Department, saying the police would no longer hold off on disciplinary proceedings if the Justice Department had not announced by Aug. 31 whether it would file criminal charges.
In response, the Department of Justice said prosecutors had told Byrne in spring that the police could start their proceedings. The next day, advocates for criminal justice reform and elected officials, along with Garner’s mother, held a protest on the steps of New York City Hall, calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to begin disciplinary proceedings immediately.
Byrne said the Justice Department had “consistently asked us” not to move forward with disciplinary proceedings until it finished its civil rights investigation. He said he told Justice Department officials in April or May that police officials wanted to start disciplinary proceedings as the fourth anniversary of Garner’s death approached this month, but they responded by saying their timeline for finishing the civil rights investigation remained unclear.
The police department must still serve Pantaleo with charges, after which the parties will begin scheduling trial room appearances and sharing evidence in discovery.
Stuart London, a lawyer for Pantaleo, said, “My client looks forward to being vindicated at trial.”
The president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, said, “We hope that the NYPD’s eagerness to start the disciplinary process does not mean the outcome has already been decided, without even the pretense of due process.”
A lawyer for Adonis could not immediately be reached. The police department typically holds off on disciplinary proceedings while state or federal investigations are continuing, but not always. For instance, the city went ahead with an administrative trial of Officer Francis Livoti while federal prosecutors were still deciding whether to charge him with civil rights violations in the chokehold death of Anthony Baez. He was fired from the police department in 1997.
De Blasio, at an unrelated news conference in the Bronx on Thursday, said the Justice Department’s statement Monday was the first he had heard that federal prosecutors no longer wanted New York City to hold off disciplining the officers. He said city officials would re-examine the policy of waiting for Justice Department investigations to end before moving to discipline officers in similar cases.
“We are going to have to rethink our approach going forward,” the mayor said. “God forbid we have another situation like this.”
The status of the civil rights investigation into Garner’s death remains unclear. The New York Times reported in April that federal civil rights prosecutors have recommended charges against Pantaleo, but top Justice Department officials expressed strong reservations about moving forward with a case they think may not be winnable.
Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said in a statement that the police department also should open disciplinary proceedings against other officers who were at the scene of his arrest. She said, “The idea the NYPD couldn’t have acted before DOJ has always been a lie.”