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Eric Garner's family seeks testimony of Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 chokehold death

NYPD commissioner on firing Daniel Pantaleo
NYPD commissioner on his decision to fire Daniel Pantaleo: "I've had 5 years to think about this" 07:24

A petition filed by the family of Eric Garner seeks a legal inquiry that would require the testimony of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD commissioner James O'Neill about their handling of the investigation into Garner's 2014 chokehold death. 

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, and sister, Ellisha Flagg Garner, joined by police reform advocates, filed the petition in state court Tuesday. They're seeking a summary judicial inquiry, a special proceeding allowed by the city charter that enables the courts to act as a check on the actions of city government. 

The petition accuses de Blasio, O'Neill and other city officials of neglect of duty over their handling of issues including police training and the discipline of the officers involved. The court did not immediately rule on the petition.

The legal fight, which includes a demand for troves of records related to Garner's case, comes a week after the police department wrapped up the only two disciplinary cases to arise from his death. The department fired Officer Daniel Pantaleo on August 19 for using a banned chokehold on Garner and announced a few days later that a sergeant who responded to the scene had agreed to forfeit 20 days of vacation time to resolve her disciplinary case. 

NYPD administrative judge Rosemarie Maldonado recommended Pantaleo's firing following a disciplinary trial. She found he used a banned chokehold on Garner, an African American man who was unarmed when police attempted to arrest him on Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes. Garner's dying words of "I can't breathe" became a flash point in a national debate over race and police use of force. 

NYPD fires officer Daniel Pantaleo over Garner chokehold 08:34

O'Neill accepted the judge's recommendation, telling "CBS This Morning," "It was difficult, but it was based on the work, the trial, the evidence, the testimony … after I looked at all the evidence, that was the decision that I made, and that was the one that I thought had to be made."

Questions about the handling of the case have dogged de Blasio during his run for president, with some protesters at a recent debate in Detroit chanting, "Fire Pantaleo!"  

Under the city charter, a summary judicial inquiry allows city officials to be questioned under penalty of perjury about matters of alleged official misconduct. Afterward, transcripts of their testimony are made public.

"There is no area of local government where public accountability is more necessary than policing, especially when police conduct results in the loss of life," lawyers for Carr, Flagg Garner and the advocates said in their petition. "Yet, there has been scant information released by the city about Mr. Garner's death."

City Hall and the police department pushed back on the request for such a proceeding.

"The police department conducted a fair and impartial investigation into this matter, including holding a public trial," de Blasio spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein said in a statement to CBS News. "For the first time, officers were held accountable."

Gwen Carr, center, the mother of chokehold victim Eric Garner, listens during a news conference after NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill announced his decision to fire NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo on August 19, 2019. AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

NYPD detective Sophia Mason said in a statement: "The Police Commissioner promised the people of New York a fair, thorough, and unbiased trial process, and that is precisely what occurred." She said every request filed under New York's Freedom of Information law would be "evaluated on its merits, in full accordance with the law."

Garner's mother and sister said they remain frustrated with what they see as a lack of transparency in the police disciplinary process and said a lack of accountability for other officers involved amounted to the city "sweeping this under the rug."

One of the reasons there hasn't been a free flow of information on the disciplinary cases is a state law that keeps police personnel records secret. O'Neill has said he supports changing the law. The police union opposes changes.

Pantaleo's department trial was open to the public, but space in the courtlike room at police headquarters was limited and the department didn't allow video or photos.

Because of the privacy law, trial transcripts were not made available to the public. Neither was the final report in which an administrative judge recommended that Pantaleo be fired.

"After all of the games they have played for more than half a decade, we have no faith that they have really been diligent in investigating officer misconduct," Carr and Flagg Garner said in a written statement.

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