After DOJ Refuses Charges, Activists Look to NYPD for Justice for Eric Garner

The decision to not file civil rights charges against Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in connection with Eric Garner's death on July 17, 2014 has elected officials and organizations criticizing the Department of Justice's ability to do its job and bring justice.
by | July 17, 2019 AT 8:30 AM
Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, protesting outside a police station in New York.
Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, protesting outside a police station in New York. (TNS/New York Daily News/Rocco Parascandola)

By Kristin F. Dalton

The decision to not file civil rights charges against Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in connection with Eric Garner's death on July 17, 2014 has elected officials and organizations criticizing the Department of Justice's ability to do its job and bring justice.

The Justice Department's announcement comes more than a month after Pantaleo's long-awaited disciplinary trial came to an end in June.

Chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) Fred Davie said the Department of Justice's (DOJ) decision to wait until 24 hours prior to its deadline to make a decision is a travesty and any kind of justice now lies within the Police Department.

"Our last hope for justice in this case lies with the Police Commissioner. CCRB prosecutors presented evidence at a trial that showed -- unequivocally -- that Officer Pantaleo engaged in misconduct worthy of termination. The evidence directly contradicts the statements made earlier today by the United States Attorney for the Eastern District," Davie said.

U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue told reporters there was "insufficient evidence" to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pantaleo and the officers involved in his arrest "acted in violation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes."

The city's medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide, determining that he died from "compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police."

Davie called on Police Commissioner James O'Neill to fire Pantaleo "for the sake of justice and police accountability."

The decision to discipline Pantaleo -- if at all and how severely -- will now come from O'Neill, who is waiting on a recommendation from NYPD Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Moldonado.

Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-North Shore) and Councilman Donovan Richards, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, said the U.S. Attorney's Office's decision was unfortunately not surprising because "the families of unarmed people of color who die in the hands of law enforcement rarely see justice served."

"After five long years, Gwen Carr and the rest of Eric's family deserve a resolution. The NYPD's departmental judge must send their recommendations to Commissioner O'Neill and based off of what we all saw with our own eyes on video and heard with our own ears in court, Officer Pantaelo should be fired now," Rose and Richards said in a joint statement.

According to a source, Moldonado's draft report and recommendation will be released in the coming weeks and will be shared with the CCRB and Pantaleo's attorney, as required by the Civil Service Law and due process.

At that time, the CCRB and Pantaleo's attorney will be allowed to submit comments on the report which will then be delivered to O'Neill.

O'Neill will review both the report and Moldonado's recommendations and make a final determination.

"In order to ensure the integrity of the process, the NYPD will not comment further at this time," said Phillip Walzak, the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information.

Rep. Max Rose (D-Staten Island/South Brooklyn) said it shouldn't have taken five years for the Garner family, and the community, to be left with no sense of closure that will now never come.

"I know for many of my constituents, especially for his family and those in the African-American community, this decision will cause serious pain. Myself and my office will use every resource available to answer questions, support faith and community leaders, and ensure the significant progress that has been made between Staten Island law enforcement and the community it serves and protects is not jeopardized," Rose told the Advance.

U.S. Sen. and presidential hopeful Kirsten Gillbrand (D-New York) said the federal justice system failed the Garner family, as well as the city of New York.

"It's an outrage that five years after Eric Garner was placed in a banned chokehold in clear violation of NYPD policy, and said 'I can't breathe' eleven times on video, his family still won't get justice," Gillibrand said.

"...The NYPD must make their departmental findings fully transparent to the public and take immediate actions to ensure this officer is no longer on the force," she continued.

Attorney General Letitia James also criticized the DOJ, saying it "turned its back on its fundamental mission to seek and serve justice."

"In times like these, we must remember that the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice. In memory of Eric Garner and all others who have lost their lives unjustly, we will continue to fight for reforms to a criminal justice system that remains broken," James said.

A new city policy, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday, will require immediate disciplinary proceedings following a police officer's involvement in the death of an unarmed civilian.

"Years ago, we put our faith in the federal government to act. We won't make that mistake again," de Blasio said.

Disciplinary proceedings will begin unless the victim's family asks the police commissioner to allow a criminal trial to proceed first, or a judge compels the city to allow a prosecutor to first conduct their investigation, a release from de Blasio's office said.

In addition to the new policy, de Blasio said the city will call on the federal government -- either through Congressional or executive action -- to compel the DOJ to notify families within one year whether it intends to proceed in cases like Garner, and to allow for the reopening of those cases if new facts arise following that one-year period.

"This further reform will make sure no family ever waits years for the answers they deserve," de Blasio said.

(c)2019 Staten Island Advance, N.Y.