The NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado made the long-anticipated decision, touching off another round of angst on the part of the family and the police.
- Eric Garner was confronted by NYPD officers for selling cigarettes on July 17, 2014, in Staten Island.
- Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a headlock or chokehold while arresting him. Garner died shortly after the attempted arrest.
- Garner's plea of "I can't breathe" became rallying cry in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The Garner case has become such an emotional touchstone in New York City, something that CBS2's political reporter Marcia Kramer had never seen before at City Hall happened Friday: Protesters somehow evaded the heavy police guard to disrupt Mayor Bill de Blasio's press conference.
The flustered mayor left the heavily guarded Blue Room at City Hall moments after protesters somehow got inside and started chanting "Fire Pantaleo! Fire Pantaleo!"
It was just the latest expression of anger in a case that has roiled the city for five long years.
Web Extra: Garner Family, Rev. Al Sharpton News Conference About Judge's Decision
Garner's daughter demanded the same thing.
"It's been too long. We've been waiting for five years for someone to say that he did something wrong, and they finally made that decision today. So we don't want to wait no more." said Emma Snipes Garner. "Make your decision Mr. O'Neill, as soon as possible."
The decision comes as de Blasio walks a political tightrope between the police, the Garner family and his presidential ambitions, Kramer reported. He needs African-American voters to support him and was careful to say he personally has no authority to fire Pantaleo and has not told Police Commissioner James O'Neill what to do.
Watch: Mayor Bill de Blasio Speaks Out About Judge's Decision
"I have not spoke to him and that is because I respect this process. And I want everyone to understand this: If you believe there is a fair and impartial process, the let it reach its conclusion beyond reproach," de Blasio said.
But Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch charged that the fix was in. He claimed the mayor was furious that a grand jury cleared Pantaleo, furious the federal government refused to bring civil rights charges.
"How dare the mayor say it was a clean process. How dare the mayor say 'I didn't give my opinion, I didn't talk to anyone.' He doesn't have to talk to anyone. You talked to the cameras, you talked to the nation the other day and you said justice will be done for that family. You send your message to the judge advocate," Lynch said.
After the decision was announced, Pantaleo was suspended. He had been on desk duty, stripped of his badge and gun since the incident.
The decision by Maldonado does not end the controversy that has roiled New York City for the past five years, since that day on July 17, 2014 when undercover cop Pantaleo confronted Eric Garner on a Staten Island street as he was selling loose cigarettes.
Pantaleo was accused of using an illegal chokehold, but a grand jury refused to indict him, and the federal government recently refused to bring civil rights charges against him. The U.S. attorney said there was a tremendous amount of discussion about what to do with the case. Sources said the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division wanted to bring charges, but prosecutors with the Eastern District of New York disagreed, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr ultimately made the final decision.
That leaves the Garner family's demand for punishment up to O'Neill.
That decision won't happen immediately. It needs to be reviewed by the prosecution and defense for input, as O'Neill explained during a radio interview.
"[Maldonado's decision] goes back to the CCRB and officer Pantaleo's attorney for a period," O'Neill said. "Eleven or 12 days, and then it comes back to me with their comments and then I make a final decision."
O'Neill can decide to agree with the trial judge or overrule her.
"The next couple of weeks I'm sure will continue to be difficult, so we want to make sure that justice is done," O'Neill said.
"The commissioner needs to immediately, unequivocally accept the recommendation of the judge and do it right away. It is good for the city, not for the Garner family. The city should not have in its employ someone who would choke someone to death in violation of police guidelines, someone who hears someone say eleven times 'I can't breathe," Rev. Al Sharpton said.
De Blasio spoke out after Maldonado reached her decision.
"Until today, the Garner family has been failed by this entire process," de Blasio said. "As all this stretched on, it reinforced the suspicion - and it's one felt by millions - that justice doesn't exist for people who look like Eric Garner. Today, we finally saw a step towards justice and accountability. We saw a process that was actually fair and impartial. And I hope that this will now bring the Garner family a sense of closure and the beginning of some peace."
De Blasio said Garner's death prompted the entire NYPD force to be retrained.
Web Extra: PBA President Pat Lynch Responds To Judge's Decision
"Today is one of the saddest and most damaging days in the history of New York City and the New York City Police Department," said NYC Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch. "This is a tragedy. And make no mistake: That family has lived with this tragedy for five years. Also has the police officers that have to deal with this. But the decision that was passed down today saying this police officer was reckless is ludicrous."
"How do we do our jobs if we can't stop and say 'Sir, you can't do that,' and they refuse?" Lynch said.
Lynch said de Blasio "predetermined the outcome" of the trial judge's decision.
"If there's going to be justice here for this city, Police Commissioner O'Neill needs to make the right decision and allow this police officer to go on with his career," Lynch said. "We had a grand jury know that there was no crime. We had the feds say that there was no crime. And now we have politics say that there was."
"Officer Pantaleo, not only did he do nothing wrong, but he acted the way he was taught to act," Pantaleo's attorney Stuart London said. "If you call this reckless assault, then almost any arrest on the street would be reckless assault."
Web Extra: Urban Affairs Expert Mark Peters On Judge's Decision
"You know you should watch [Mayor Bill de Blasio's] Pinocchio nose. When he stands up there and says 'Well I couldn't do anything for the five years because the feds wouldn't let me,' that's not true. The Police Department's moved forward before. So if he had his decision made - the wrong decision - then he should've had the backbone to make it. But now when he's running on the national stage, he wants to say 'Well, it's somebody else's fault.' No it's not. It's your fault. You're the leader of the city. He's lying once again. Just like he's lying saying this is a fair and just process - it most certainly was not," Lynch added.
Lynch suggested the commissioner should weigh all the facts carefully because it could have a chilling effect on the police department and the willingness of cops to protect the public before protecting themselves.
De Blasio and Sharpton are moving forward, seeking congressional action including a national law and a congressional investigation.
"What do you want Congress to do when they look at the Justice Deprtment?" Kramer asked.
"I think they have to beg this important question," de Blasio said. "What happened in the last five years is unfathomable. There was no decision even from the Justice Department. That's an essential question to beg. That can't happen again in the future."
"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," said Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Philip Walzak.
"This decision is long overdue. It should not have taken five years to determine what the public clearly understood in five minutes: Officer Pantaleo used an illegal chokehold on Eric Garner, which ultimately led to his death," City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said. "Now Police Commissioner O'Neill must act. Pantaleo must be fired immediately. Nothing will bring back Mr. Garner, but I hope this decision gives the Garner family some peace."
"For over five years, the Garner family, New Yorkers, and Americans across the country have waited for justice to be served in the death of Eric Garner. Today's recommendation reflects action that should have been taken long ago: Officer Pantaleo should be removed from his position at the NYPD. I strongly urge Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O'Neill to follow through on this recommendation and take this overdue, but critical action to ensure our communities finally feel some semblance of justice," said New York Attorney General Letitia James.
"Today's decision confirms what the Civilian Complaint Review Board always has maintained: Officer Daniel Pantaleo committed misconduct on July 17, 2014, and his actions caused the death of Eric Garner," the CCRB said in a statement. "The evidence the CCRB's prosecutors brought forth at trial was more than sufficient to prove that Pantaleo is unfit to serve. 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."
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