An NYPD judge recommended firing the officer accused of using a banned chokehold in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, bring some measure of closure to a nationally influential case that local and federal officials all declined to criminally prosecute.
The judge found officer Daniel Pantaleo -- who has been on modified administrative duty in the years since Garner's death on a Staten Island street corner -- guilty of using an impermissible chokehold on the 43-year-old father, according to a high-level source familiar with the decision.
The NYPD suspended Pantaleo for 30 days without pay, effective immediately. For Garner's daughter, Emerald, the ruling was bittersweet.
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"This has been a long battle, five years too long, and finally someone has said this cop did something wrong," she said. "It's been way too long to say he did something wrong."
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has come under aggressive criticism during his presidential campaign for not firing Pantaleo (which, as a matter of law, he cannot do), cheered the decision.
"Today for the first time in these long five years, the system of justice is working," De Blasio said at a City Hall news conference.
The judge's ruling is preliminary, not the final decision regarding the fate of Pantaleo. Next, both Pantaleo's attorney and attorneys for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which prosecuted the case, will have an opportunity to meet with the judge to discuss the decision before it goes to NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill, who will ultimately make the decision on the officer's future.
The attorneys have up to two weeks to do that, then the departmental judge sends her final findings to O'Neill, who will decide whether to fire Pantaleo or not. The NYPD said Friday that O'Neill has not yet seen the judge's draft report.
“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. 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," deputy commissioner Phillip Walzak said in a statement.
The Police Benevolent Association, the union representing Pantaleo, condemned the judge's decision in fiery terms.
"This decision is pure political insanity," PBA President Pat Lynch said in a statement. "If it is allowed to stand, it will paralyze the NYPD for years to come."
The chokehold or no-chokehold debate was the crux of the entire case against Pantaleo, whom a grand jury declined to indict and whom the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute. Prosecutors had argued the video, which captured Garner's dying words, "I can't breathe," clearly showed Pantaleo use a banned chokehold -- and the medical examiner's autopsy report listed a chokehold as the cause of his death. Health factors, including obesity and high blood pressure, were mentioned as contributing factors in that report.
Defense attorneys submitted at trial that the move Pantaleo was seen using was not an illegal chokehold, but a department-approved takedown move used to subdue suspects resisting arrest -- and that his arm was not around Garner's neck when he said, repeatedly, "I can't breathe." They could not immediately be reached for comment regarding the judge's decision Friday.
Fred Davie, chair of the CCRB, said in a statement Friday that the judge's preliminary decision confirmed Pantaleo committed misconduct the day Garner died -- and that his actions caused Garner's death.
"The evidence the CCRB’s prosecutors brought forth at trial was more than sufficient to prove that Pantaleo is unfit to serve," Davie said. "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."
Friday's developments come after the U.S. Department of Justice announced July 16 that it would not file civil rights or criminal charges against Pantaleo.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr made the final decision in that case, an official said, adopting the recommendation of prosecutors in Brooklyn. Lawyers in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, however, had a different view and believed charges could have been pursued, according to two officials.
Garner, an unarmed black man, refused to be handcuffed after police stopped him on a Staten Island street corner in 2014 for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Video showed Pantaleo put an arm around Garner's neck in an apparent chokehold; the officer's attorney, though, said in opening statements that the cop's arm was not around Garner's neck when he said "I can't breathe."
Garner died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. His death was ruled a homicide.
His words became a rallying cry for the national movement against police brutality. Pantaleo's disciplinary trial kicked off May 13 to heightened emotions as protesters swarmed a major New York City highway at the height of the morning rush, stretching a banner across the FDR condemning the officer.
Garner's family received $5.9 million from the city in 2015 to settle a wrongful death claim.
On Staten Island, reaction to the judge's ruling was both swift and positive.
"They should be pleased because he was wrong and they get satisfaction," local resident Jean Coleman said of Garner's family.