It’s been a little over a week since Daniel Pantaleo, the former NYPD police officer who used a department-prohibited chokehold on Eric Garner, resulting in Garner’s death, was terminated from the police department. And while Pantaleo’s firing marked the first serious punishment he has received in the case, the termination has been followed by protests and criticism of city leadership.
When NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced on August 19 in a sometimes emotional press conference that Pantaleo would lose his badge over his “reckless” use of a chokehold on Garner — a 43-year-old black father of six stopped for allegedly selling loose cigarettes — he also lamented the choice before him. “No one believes that Officer Pantaleo got out of bed on July 17, 2014, thinking he would make choices and take actions during an otherwise routine arrest that led to another person’s death,” O’Neill said. “But officers’ choices and actions even made under extreme pressure matter.”
In the five years since Garner’s death, Pantaleo has been on desk duty but had mostly gone unpunished until now. In 2014, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict him. This July, the Department of Justice announced that after years of investigating the incident, the agency would not pursue civil rights charges against him. Now that he’s been fired, Pantaleo will no longer receive a pension, but he will be given any money that he had already paid into it.
While the announcement of Pantaleo’s termination effectively marks the procedural end of a case that drew national attention and invigorated the then-nascent Black Lives Matter Movement, the days since Pantaleo’s firing have made it clear that the decision does not end the Garner case’s significance, nor does it resolve deeper tensions involving the New York Police Department, the mayor’s office, and Garner’s family and racial justice activists.
Garner’s family, for example, has argued that Pantaleo’s termination is just the first step toward a series of necessary reforms that must be made to the department. The family continues to call for other officers involved in Garner’s arrest to be fired, and is also maintaining pressure on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom they see as ineffective.
The city’s police union, meanwhile, has argued that the Pantaleo decision signifies a lack of support for officers. The union has called for officers to “proceed with the utmost caution’’ after Pantaleo’s firing, claiming that officers have been left to fend for themselves after the decision.
Garner’s family wants more officers to face consequences
Garner’s family has argued that while Pantaleo’s termination was long overdue, his firing does not end their fight for justice.
They say that other officers involved in the arrest must also be fired for their actions, some of which were fully disclosed during an NYPD administrative trial held earlier this year. The trial revealed that Pantaleo’s partner, Justin Damico, admitted to filing arrest paperwork exaggerating the charges against Garner shortly after Garner’s death. The family has also called for punishments against Lt. Christopher Bannon, who texted another officer that things “were not a big deal” after being told that Garner had gone into cardiac arrest.
Garner’s family argues that these officers, and others, also deserve punishment, saying that their actions helped shield Pantaleo in the moments and weeks after Garner’s death. But no officers have been indicted, and just one other person, NYPD Sgt. Kizzy Adonis, has ever faced the prospect of disciplinary action or punishment related to the Garner case.
Adonis was scheduled to have her own department disciplinary trial this year, but it was canceled in late August after she agreed to plead guilty to counts of failing to supervise other officers at the scene on July 2014. On August 21, it was announced that she would lose 20 vacation days as punishment.
That announcement angered Garner’s family, who said that they were “outraged and disgusted” at the decision. “By refusing to schedule a disciplinary trial for Adonis, de Blasio and the NYPD are actively participating in an ongoing cover-up because they don’t want the public to know how deep, how wide, and how high the wrongdoing in this case went,” Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, said in an August 21 statement.
The family has since pledged to push for additional actions against the NYPD, and has also called for a further investigation into the case in the hopes that Pantaleo and other officers will face criminal punishments. They’ve recently called for the House of Representatives to hold committee hearings, and they’ve put their support behind state legislation that would make it a crime for a police officer to use a chokehold.
On August 27, the family and local activists filed a petition with the state court and a letter with the NYPD and the city Civilian Complaint Review Board in an effort to get more information about the aftermath of Garner’s death and how the department investigated officers involved in the incident.
Critics argue that NYPD officers are effectively “frozen” after Pantaleo’s firing
As Garner’s family continues to push for the officers involved in the 2014 arrest to be held accountable, there’s been a wide range of reactions from within the police department.
Of these reactions, what is arguably the loudest response has come from the New York City Police Benevolent Association, a union representing tens of thousands of NYPD officers. Over the past week, union leadership has argued that Pantaleo was unjustly fired, adding that O’Neill responded to pressures from activists and the mayor when he decided to fire the officer.
“It’s absolutely essential that the world know that the New York City Police Department is rudderless and frozen,” Patrick Lynch, president of the union, said during a recent press conference. As he spoke, he stood in front of an NYPD flag that was hung upside down to signal a state of distress.
“The leadership has abandoned ship and left our police officers on the street alone, without backing,” he said.
In an email to union members, Lynch added that “unless and until the Department provides guidance on how police officers are expected to do our job without any expectation of due process,” members should take extra caution when performing their duties, suggesting that there would be a work slowdown in the wake of Pantaleo’s termination.
As Gothamist has reported, some rank-and-file NYPD officers have argued that the decision to hold Panatleo accountable for Garner’s death showed a lack of support for officers and makes it harder for them to do their jobs. But not all officers agree, and some have argued that Pantaleo should have been disciplined for the 2014 incident.
As the union argues that officers are being unfairly punished, city officials counter that they remain confident NYPD officers will continue to do their jobs.
The lawyer representing Pantaleo, meanwhile, has said that his client will file a lawsuit to appeal his firing. A GoFundMe created to support Pantaleo has pulled in more than $157,000 in donations, some of them from active or retired law enforcement officers, since being created earlier in August.
The fallout has also threatened NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s presidential bid
Garner’s family and the police union have both repeatedly criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his handling of the case in the years since Garner’s death.
The criticism comes as de Blasio continues to mount a long-shot presidential bid, one that he has largely centered on the police reforms enacted after Garner’s death. De Blasio argues that his push for these reforms make him an ideal political leader, particularly when it comes to reducing tension between communities of color and police officers.
But Garner’s family and the activists supporting them argue that de Blasio’s handling of the Garner case calls his credibility on the matter into question. De Blasio has been chastised for the fact that it took years for the city to finally begin proceedings against Pantaleo. Shortly after the DOJ announced that it would not prosecute the officer, protesters argued that de Blasio needed to step in and fire Pantaleo immediately.
De Blasio, citing the city charter and state law, said that the decision to fire Pantaleo ultimately rested with O’Neill, who went on to make his decision. Shortly after, de Blasio argued that the city had finally done its job. “Today we have finally seen justice done,” he said on August 19. “We must devote ourselves to this simple goal: No one should have to go through the agony that the city has gone through here. Let this be the last tragedy.”
But activists disagree and have maintained pressure on de Blasio in recent days. Prior to O’Neill’s announcement, activists held several protests in NYC and interrupted the July democratic presidential debates with cries of “Fire Pantaleo.” On August 25, a protester interrupted de Blasio during a CNN town hall to further criticize his handling of the case.
“If the mayor continues to pursue the presidency, choosing national TV airtime over reforming the NYPD, then the grassroots activists of New York will appear on camera with him, calling him out for his neglect of our communities,” Carmen Perez, president and CEO of the Gathering for Justice and co-founder of Justice League NYC, the group the protester is affiliated with, said in an emailed statement.
It suggests that Pantaleo’s firing is far from the end of Garner’s case. Instead, the recent actions and statements from Garner’s family, activists, and the police union indicate that the controversy and calls for reform in the wake of Garner’s death have shifted into a new phase for both racial justice activists and the police department they are protesting.
It’s likely that attention will continue to be paid to the current treatment of black and brown New Yorkers, and that the mayor’s office and other officials will continue to be called to explain their handling of the case by Garner’s family, activists, and police officers. Many of those questions will also come with increased pressure to seriously show that the city is invested in ensuring that what happened to Garner does not happen again.
“This is not just for Eric; we’re doing this for all New Yorkers whose loved ones have been killed or brutalized by the NYPD and whose names are not as well known as Eric’s,” Carr, Garner’s mother, told reporters on Tuesday. “If the city gets away with sweeping this under the rug, what chance do others have to hold officers accountable for wrongdoing?”