WASHINGTON – The Justice Department will not bring federal charges against a New York City police officer over the death of Eric Garner during a chaotic arrest that ignited nationwide protests five years ago.
The decision, described by federal officials familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment publicly, marks the end of a civil rights probe into an episode that helped turn a national spotlight on how police officers use force against minorities.
Authorities spent years investigating Garner’s death in an examination that proved contentious both inside and outside of the Justice Department. Attorneys in the department’s Civil Rights Division long advocated bringing a criminal charge, while prosecutors in Brooklyn recommended against it.
In the end, Attorney General William Barr broke the logjam, deciding in recent days that Justice would not bring a federal civil rights prosecution against New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, officials said.
Garner, a 43-year-old black man, was accused of selling single cigarettes outside a store on Staten Island when Pantaleo attempted to arrest him. Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe,” after Pantaleo and other officers knocked him to the ground with Pantaleo holding him around the head and neck. Captured on video, the disturbing encounter quickly became a social media phenomenon.
Garner died soon after. His last words, however, would become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement whose members have staged demonstrations against alleged excessive force used by police across the country.
“We’re here with heavy hearts because the DOJ has failed us,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said Tuesday. “Although we looked for better from them, five years ago my son said ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times and today we can’t breathe because they have let us down.”
The city medical examiner listed Garner’s cause of death as “compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The officer’s lawyer, Stuart London, and the police union have denied that Pantaleo used a choke-hold maneuver banned by the NYPD.
The city paid a $5.9 million civil settlement to Garner’s family. Pantaleo has been assigned to administrative duty since Garner’s death.
In 2017, the city’s Civilian Complaints Review Board determined that Pantaleo used excessive force. Federal authorities have been conducting a separate, years-long civil rights inquiry into Garner’s death. Pantaleo also is awaiting a verdict in a NYPD disciplinary proceeding.
Wednesday is the five year anniversary of Garner’s death, and the date would have marked the Justice Department’s last opportunity to bring civil rights charges before the statute of limitations expires. An official who was not authorized to speak publicly said prosecutors closed the case without presenting it to a federal grand jury.
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Months after the arrest, a Staten Island jury declined to indict Pantaleo, a decision that set off angry demonstrations. Pantaleo has denied any wrongdoing, An internal police review is pending that could result in disciplinary action against the officer.
Garner’s mother vowed that the Justice decision would not go unchallenged and that the family would seek Pantaleo removal from the force.
“We are asking the (police) commissioner to make the right decision,” Carr said. “Officer Pantaleo and all the officers who were involved in my son’s death that day need to be off the force. The streets of New York City are not safe with them walking around. Five years ago, it was my family. Today or tomorrow it could be your family.”
Some civil rights advocates joined the family in expressing outrage with the Justice decision.
“This is a major miscarriage of justice,” said Carmen Perez, executive director of The Gathering for Justice, which helped thrust Garner’s death into the national spotlight. “For the Department of Justice to announce this one day before the 5th anniversary of Eric Garner’s death sends a disrespectful message that black bodies are dispensable to the NYPD and all who’ve had the power to act over the past five years.
“Millions of us watched Eric beg for his life, eleven times, while Officer Pantaleo and other officers around him ignored his cries. Our communities will never rebuild trust in the police to protect and serve without accountability, and we will look to Mayor (Bill) de Blasio to take real action in response to this devastating decision from the DOJ.”
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