Eric Garner Rally

Xinhua/Sipa USA

Family Demands Justice 4 Years After Eric Garner Death

July 17, 2018 - 9:33 am
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP/CBS News) -- Tuesday marks four years since the death of Eric Garner and the NYPD said it is done waiting for the federal government to wrap up its investigation of the case.

Garner, 43, was stopped on July 17, 2014 outside a Staten Island convenience store because police officers believed he was selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker shows Garner telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo then placed his arm around Garner's neck to take him down. Garner, who had asthma, is heard repeating the phrase "I can't breathe" 11 times before losing consciousness. He was pronounced dead later at a hospital.

A Staten Island grand jury declined grand jury declined to file charges against Pantaleo in December 2014, but in 2016 a federal grand jury began hearing evidence regarding whether Garner's civil rights were violated, a source told CBS News at the time.

A letter dated Monday from an NYPD lawyer informed the Department of Justice that it would no longer wait for federal authorities to decide whether to charge Pantaleo in the Garner case. The letter said that after four years since Garner's death, the federal probe “seems to have no end in sight” and the department could no longer justifying delaying its own administrative case.

Since “a definite date by which time a final decision by the U.S. DOJ will be rendered in this matter cannot be predicted,” the NYPD will now go ahead with the disciplinary probe anyway, NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Lawrence Byrne wrote in the letter to Justice Department lawyer Paige Fitzgerald.

The NYPD will go ahead with the disciplinary proceedings on or promptly after Sept. 1, Byrne wrote. If the DOJ announces its intention to file criminal charges on or before Aug. 31, the NYPD will hold off, the letter said.

"I indicated to them several months ago that we couldn't wait indefinitely to proceed with our process, and we'd give them some additional time, but then, we were going to have to move ahead” Byrne said. “When I spoke with them again last week, it was clear that there was no internal timeline to reach a decision on this matter at DOJ, and so we’ve decided to give them one final block of time as a courtesy until September 1.”

As Byrne put it, “If they’re not in a position to make a decision and publicly announce it by then, it’ll be more than four years, and we feel we have to move ahead with our internal disciplinary process.”

But Garner's family wants action now. They were joined at a news conference Tuesday afternoon by the father of Saheed Vassell, who was killed by police in April, as well local lawmakers to demand the NYPD act immediately, saying there's no reason for the department to wait any longer.

As WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb reported, Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, described herself as outraged as she called for all the officers involved in her son’s death to be fired immediately – with a special mention for Pantaleo.

“Pantaleo put my son in a chokehold that killed him, even though he said, ‘I can’t breathe,’” she said. “Eleven times, he said, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

Carr is also angry about the NYPD announcing that it will take until September to take disciplinary action against the officers involved, and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is on the same page.

“Daniel Pantaleo should be fired. Any officer involved with this death should not be on the police force any longer,” Johnson said. “There needs to be, as was said, accountability and transparency, immediately.”

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill also addressed the Garner case on Tuesday. Speaking at a forum on policing, As WCBS 880's Peter Haskell reported, O’Neill did not talk about the decision to file disciplinary charges or the timing, but he did acknowledge the anniversary.

“That, in conjunction with my experience as a precinct commander, is really what pushed me into neighborhood policing,” O’Neill said.

He believes it is working.

“We put the same cops in the same sectors every day,” O’Neill said. “It doesn’t seem like rocket science. But to do it right takes a great effort.”

"We don't want it to be watered down,” she said. “We want a trial and we want justice."

In April, an official said civil rights prosecutors had recommended charges against Pantaleo, but that there was disagreement within the DOJ over whether it is a viable case.

According to CBS New York, in September 2017 the Civilian Complaint Review Board recommended that Pantaleo be disciplined for his actions during Garner's arrest. But at that time, a spokesperson told the station that the department was waiting for the DOJ to finish its investigation into the case.  

Criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson said the Eric Garner case amounts to a situation of “justice delayed.”

“I think just the general feeling, if you look at the choking death to begin with, that there should have at least been an indictment, right? I mean, people felt, looking at the strength of the video – and saying he can’t breathe, 11 times, I believe – that there should have been an indictment. There was not,” he said. “That angered and disappointed a lot of people who believed it was a very unjust verdict.”

The DOJ picked up the case after the grand jury declined to indict, but has also now stalled to the disappointment of many, Jackson told WCBS 880’s Joe Avellar.

“I think people are looking for at least the NYPD to do something,“ he said. “So the fact that they’re doing it now and saying, ‘Look, federal government, let us know, because we’ll defer to you, but if not, we’re moving forward,’ I think it’s the right call. I think people want to bring this to an end.”

Jackson noted that federal charges are harder to bring, since states have more tools in their toolbox.

“I mean, you can charge someone not with an intentional crime of killing him, right? Pompeo, you could say that he was negligent; that he was careless in holding him in a chokehold. You could say he was reckless – that he consciously disregarded the risk that if he held him that way and he said he couldn’t breathe, he would die,” he said.

But with federal civil rights charges, the requirement is to show an intent to violate someone’s civil rights.

 “You have to show they acted with animus,” Jackson said. “You have to show that they acted with some evilness or wicked purpose, and that generally is significantly more difficult to prove than state-level charges would be. So the federal government generally, in many of these cases, declines to prosecute. But I think the feeling is if you’re going to do that, say so, and if not, the NYPD will take it on itself, hold an administrative proceeding, and see if there can be some justice there.”

Jackson said the case has been dragged out far too long.

“I mean, the family certainly got a civil settlement, but that doesn’t bring him back. And I think that, you know, this really tore into the hearts and minds of a lot of people,” he said.

The PBA calls the Department of Justice investigation a "fishing expedition" and said Pantaleo will eventually be vindicated.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)