What to Know
- NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill has fired the officer accused of using a chokehold that contributed to the death of Eric Garner in 2014
- Earlier this month, an NYPD trial judge recommended officer Daniel Pantaleo be fired
- NYPD suspended Pantaleo for 30 days without pay, effective immediately following judge’s recommendation and pending O'Neill's final decision
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill has fired the police officer accused of using a banned chokehold on Eric Garner in 2014, siding with the departmental trial judge who recommended termination earlier this month.
He was quickly lauded by advocates and local leaders -- and blasted by the head of the police union, who in a searing statement accused O'Neill of choosing "politics and his own self-interest over the police officers he claims to lead" as the officer's attorney said they would appeal his firing.
O'Neill's decision, revealed early Monday afternoon, is final, closing the years-long book on embattled NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, whom a local grand jury and federal prosecutors all declined to criminally prosecute. Pantaleo will not receive his 13-year vested pension, but will get the contributions back that he had made over his years on the force, O'Neill said.
Police sources aligned with Pantaleo and familiar with the process say there were discussions last week and over the weekend about a deal that would have removed Pantaleo from his position but allowed him to retain a partial pension. The sources say they were told that was off the table on Saturday.
It’s not clear what happened between those discussions, and O’Neill’s decision on Monday, to terminate. O’Neill, in his news conference Monday, acknowledged that a so-called separation of service (as opposed to outright termination) had been an option under consideration. He also said he did discuss the decision with Mayor De Blasio.
When asked directly if City Hall interfered in his decision, O'Neill said "there was pressure from any number of sides."
'I MAY HAVE MADE SIMILAR MISTAKES'
During a lengthy, emotional explanation leading up to his announcement of Pantaleo's firing, O'Neill set up the stage on that Staten Island corner in that time period -- a period where crime was rampant in the area. Residents avoided it.
He described a series of actions by Pantaleo and by Garner, beginning with Garner's refusal to comply with officers attempting to arrest him for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street corner. O'Neill spoke of Pantaleo's initial response and actions as the situation became tense, saying he abided by NYPD protocol the entire time -- until the moment of the chokehold.
"Had I been in officer Pantaleo's situation, I may have made similar mistakes. And had I made those mistakes, I wish I would've used the arrival of backup officers to give the situation more time to make that arrest," O'Neill said. "And I wished I would've released my grip before it became a chokehold."
"Every time I watch that video I say to myself, as I'm sure all of you do, 'Mr. Garner, don't do it. Comply. Officer Pantaleo, don't do it,' he added. "But none of us can take back our decisions, most especially when they lead to the death of another human being."
The police chief took full responsibility for the decision to terminate the officer's employment, and clearly had empathy for both the Garner family and for Pantaleo, who logged hundreds of good arrests during his time with the NYPD.
"If I was still a cop I'd probably be mad at me," O'Neill said. He added later: "But it certainly wasn't the most difficult thing I've had to do as a police officer."
The commissioner went on to cite the names of police wives he's had to inform about the deaths of their husbands, saying, "This is a very difficult job."
But if there's one thing he wants the people of New York City to take away from his decision, it's that the NYPD is fair and impartial, O'Neill said.
"Don't judge us on one incident. Judge us by the totality of what we do," O'Neill said.
In a press conference following the NYPD's decision, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch blasted the leadership of the city and police department saying they "are absolutely afraid of criminal advocates and based this decision not on the facts, but based this decision on the politics," calling the events that unfolded in 2014 as "not a crime" but a "chaotic situation."
Lynch called for Mayor Bill de Blasio to be removed for what he sees as a lack of support for the police department. He also went on to say that O'Neill "lost" the police department.
Pantaleo's lawyer, Stuart London, stood beside Lynch and said Pantaleo "is disappointed, upset but has a lot of strength and wants to go forward," as they plan to appeal the decision.
"We will file an article 78. We will continue with this case. After the article 78, if we need to appeal beyond that we will," London said. "We are looking for him to get his job back."
During the news briefing, London also said Pantaleo was promised a fully vested pension as of Friday by the NYPD, but following an alleged weekend meeting between de Blasio and O'Neill the option was pulled off the table.
"To think the mayor stayed out of the process for five years is a lie," Lynch said.
Meanwhile, in another press conference Garner's children and the family's attorneys, alongside Rev. Al Sharpton, said the fight is not over.
"Today Daniel Pantaleo lost his job, but five years ago Eric Garner lost his life," Sharpton said.
"It was clear in the only proceedings that happened, that Eric Garner was a victim of a policeman that broke policy and, in fact, contributed to his death," he went on to say.
Sharpton said they plan to go to New York state lawmakers to demand that the use of chokeholds by police be declared illegal by law.
Garner's daughter, Emerald Snipes Garner, thanked O'Neill for the decision to fire Pantaleo.
"Commissioner O'Neill, I thank you for doing the right thing. I truly and sincerely thank you for firing the officer," she said, adding he "finally made a decision that should have been made five years ago."
"Yes, he is fired, but the fight is not over," Snipes Garner went on to say.
The Garner family and their attorneys, as well as Sharpton, are also calling for the other officers present during the 2014 incident to be held accountable and for an investigation to take place as to why officials across the country decided not to bring cases similar to Garner's to federal court.
In yet a separate news briefing, de Blasio said that the city finally ended a chapter that brought pain and fear to many.
"It was so difficult for all of us to reconcile what we saw with what we must believe about law enforcement," he said, adding that on Monday "we've seen the NYPD's own disciplinary process act fairly and impartially."
"Justice has been done," de Blasio said, but underlined that there is more work to be done and that both the community and police department must work together to build a positive relationship for all.
De Blasio also discredited the idea that he and O'Neill do not support police officers.
"I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that I know that every single day we have tried to help our officers, support our officers, give them the tools they need, give them the protection they need," de Blasio said.
He also said he played no part in the final decision by O'Neill to fire Pantaleo and strip him of his vested pension, saying it was solely the commissioner's decision.
A YEARS-LONG PROCESS
On Aug. 2, an NYPD trial judge found Pantaleo guilty of "reckless assault" when he used an impermissible chokehold on Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island father. She found the officer not guilty of "intentional strangulation." An autopsy had found Garner's death was caused in part by a chokehold; the medical examiner ruled the case a homicide.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board prosecuted the case. In a statement Monday, Chair Fred Davie said O'Neill had no choice but to dismiss Pantaleo given the evidence presented at the department trial.
"Make no mistake: This process took entirely too long. And the tragic reality is that neither a verdict from a judge nor a decision by a police commissioner can reverse what happened on July 17, 2014," Davie said. "Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s termination from the New York City Police Department does not make the death of Eric Garner any less harrowing. But it is heartening to know that some element of justice has been served."
Following the NYPD judge's recommendation to fire Pantaleo, his lawyer maintained that the officer's case had been won in the courtroom but lost due entirely to politics. He said Pantaleo did not use a chokehold, but a department-approved takedown move designed to subdue a suspect.
The chokehold or no-chokehold debate was the crux of the entire case against Pantaleo. Prosecutors had argued the video, which captured Garner's dying words, "I can't breathe," clearly showed Pantaleo use a banned chokehold -- and the medical examiner's autopsy report listed a chokehold as the cause of his death. Health factors, including obesity and high blood pressure, were mentioned as contributing factors in that report.
Defense attorneys submitted at trial that the move Pantaleo was seen using was not an illegal chokehold, but a department-approved takedown move used to subdue suspects resisting arrest -- and that his arm was not around Garner's neck when he said, repeatedly, "I can't breathe."
His words became a rallying cry for the national movement against police brutality. Garner's family received $5.9 million from the city in 2015 to settle a wrongful death claim.