New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced on Monday that Daniel Pantaleo, the officer seen on video choking Eric Garner before he died five years ago, has been fired. Pantaleo has remained on desk duty on the police force in the years since the incident, collecting a salary and pension benefits, and has avoided any legal punishment for his role in Garner’s death.
O’Neill described the decision as a difficult but necessary one. “It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York police officer,” O’Neill said Monday. But he added: “Had I been in [Pantaleo’s] situation, I may have made similar mistakes.”
In his announcement of his decision, O’Neill emphasized that he believed the situation was tragic for all parties involved and that Pantaleo had not meant to kill Garner, according to CNN: "In carrying out the court’s verdict in this case, I take no pleasure. I know that many will disagree with this decision, and that is their right. There are absolutely no victors here today. Not the Garner family, not the community at large, and certainly not the courageous men and women of the Police Department who put their own lives on the line every single day in service to the people of this great city. Today is a day of reckoning, but in can also be a day of reconciliation."
The decision came two weeks after an administrative judge recommended that Pantaleo be fired. The judge, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado, concluded that Pantaleo had used an illegal chokehold—not the “seat belt” technique his lawyers had argued he used—and that he had violated other department policies during the 2014 arrest.
“Here, [Pantaleo’s] use of a chokehold 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,” Maldonado wrote, according to CNN. “Moreover, [Pantaleo’s] glaring dereliction of responsibility precipitated a tragic outcome.”
The NYPD suspended Pantaleo upon the decision, and O’Neill was given the opportunity to make the final decision on Pantaleo’s fate with the department. The police commissioner cited the judge’s decision in his announcement.
The deadly encounter five years ago began when police confronted Garner on a street in Staten Island over his alleged sale of loose, unlicensed cigarettes. Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, refused to be handcuffed, and in a bystander video of the incident, Pantaleo can be seen putting Garner in what appeared to be a chokehold. (Pantaleo later testified he was afraid that Garner was going to push him through a storefront window.) As other officers pushed Garner to the ground, Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe”—dying words that became a rallying cry for nationwide protests against police violence toward unarmed black men. A medical examiner testified that Garner had died from an asthma attack triggered by the chokehold.
A state grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo that year, and in July of this year, the Department of Justice announced that it also would not move forward with federal civil rights charges against Pantaleo. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division recommended charges, but the FBI and federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York concluded that it would be too difficult to prove Pantaleo’s intent to be able to take on the case. Internal conflict broke out over the question in the Justice Department, according to the Washington Post, but Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General William Barr reportedly decided to side with the federal prosecutors, and the department announced its decision a day before the statute of limitations was set to expire on the case.
Pantaleo and the other officers involved in the encounter avoided any criminal prosecution. The Garner family and the city of New York reached a civil settlement in 2015 for $5.9 million.
O’Neill said Monday that Pantaleo would not receive his pension and that any contributions he had already put toward the fund would be returned to him.
Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the city’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the largest union for NYPD officers, said in a statement that O’Neill had “chosen politics and his own self-interest over the police officers he claims to lead” and that the NYPD “will remain rudderless and frozen, and Commissioner O’Neill will never be able to bring it back.”
Update, Aug. 19, 2019, at 2:50 p.m.: Eric Garner’s daughter Emerald Garner told reporters on Monday that “the fight is not over” and that she would “do everything in [her] power to never see another Eric Garner.” She also thanked O’Neill for his decision to fire Pantaleo. Pantaleo’s lawyer told the press that his client would appeal the decision.