Sunday 22 September 2019

New York police fire officer five years after chokehold death

Video of the confrontation that led to Eric Garner’s death led to years of protests.

Daniel Pantaleo (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)
Daniel Pantaleo (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)

By Tom Hays and Michael R Sisak, Associated Press

New York City Police Department has fired an officer involved in the 2014 chokehold death of a black man whose dying cries of “I can’t breathe” fuelled a national debate over race and police use of force.

After five years of investigations and protests, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said he fired Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, based on a recent recommendation of a department disciplinary judge.

He said it was clear Mr Pantaleo “can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer”.

“None of us can take back our decisions,” Mr O’Neill said, “especially when they lead to the death of another human being.”

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Commissioner James P O’Neill makes the announcement (Richard Drew/AP)

Asked whether mayor Bill de Blasio forced his hand, Mr O’Neill said the dismissal was his choice.

“This is the decision that the police commissioner makes,” he said, calling Eric Garner’s death an “irreversible tragedy” that “must have a consequence”.

The president of the police union, Patrick Lynch, accused Mr O’Neill of choosing “politics and his own self-interest over the police officers he claims to lead”.

He urged officers to “proceed with the utmost caution in this new reality, in which they may be deemed ‘reckless’ just for doing their job”.

“Now it is time for every police officer in this city to make their own choice,” he said in a statement. “We will uphold our oath, but we cannot and will not do so by needlessly jeopardising our careers or personal safety.”

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Bill de Blasio (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Video of the confrontation led to years of protests and calls by black activists and liberal politicians for Mr Pantaleo to lose his job.

City officials had long insisted they could not take action until criminal investigations were complete.

A state grand jury declined to indict Mr Pantaleo in 2014, but federal authorities kept a civil rights investigation open for five years before announcing last month they would not bring charges.

Mr Pantaleo’s lawyer has insisted the officer used a reasonable amount of force and did not mean to hurt Mr Garner.

Mr O’Neill said the officer initially placed Mr Garner in a chokehold as the two men stumbled backwards into a glass window. He said that was understandable, given the struggle.

But after officers got Mr Garner on the ground, Mr Pantaleo did not relax his grip and “kept his hands clasped and maintained the chokehold”.

“That exigent circumstance no longer existed when they moved to the ground,” Mr O’Neill said.

I should not be here standing with my brother, fatherless. He's fired, but the fight is not over Emerald Snipes Garner

Mr Garner’s death came at a time of a growing public outcry over police killings of unarmed black men that sparked the national Black Lives Matter movement.

Weeks later, protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, and later in 2014, a man angry about the Garner and Brown cases shot two New York City police officers dead in their patrol car in retribution.

Civil rights campaigner the Rev Al Sharpton said Mr Garner’s family was “relieved but not celebratory”.

“Pantaleo will go home a terminated man, but this family had to go to a funeral,” Mr Sharpton said at a news conference.

Mr Garner’s daughter, Emerald Snipes Garner, thanked Mr O’Neill “for doing the right thing”.

She said she is urging legislators to make it a state and federal crime — not just an administrative violation — for any police officer to use a chokehold.

“I should not be here standing with my brother, fatherless,” she said. “He’s fired, but the fight is not over.”

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