Five years after Eric Garner’s death — an event that galvanized the cry “I can’t breathe” into a national campaign against police brutality and spawned the Black Lives Matter Movement — Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who used the banned chokehold that killed Garner, has been fired.
New York Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill announced the decision at a news conference Monday, telling reporters that Pantaleo was fired, effective immediately, from the New York Police Department (NYPD).
“The unintended consequence of Mr. Garner’s death must have a consequence of its own,” O’Neill said during the news conference. “Therefore, I agree with the deputy commissioner of trial’s legal findings and recommendations. It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”
The decision comes two weeks after a police administrative judge issued a 46-page decision, ruling that Pantaleo violated the department’s ban on the use of chokeholds and recommending his firing.
In her findings, which followed an internal police investigation, Deputy Commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado, the police administrative judge, noted that Pantaleo attempted to arrest an uncooperative Garner for selling single, untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island.
In the process of making the arrest, Pantaleo wrapped his left forearm around Garner’s neck, clasped his hands together and choked him to death. That perfectly described a chokehold, the submission procedure the NYPD banned in 1993 after a spate of deaths of criminal suspects attributed to police misuse.
Garner’s death on July 17, 2014 became a cultural and political flashpoint, largely because of the cell phone video that captured it, which was shared by social media around the globe.
Sampled from the video, Garner’s dying words — “I can’t breathe” — became a cri de coeur for a national network of community activists who took to the streets and demanded accountability for police-involved deaths of black, unarmed citizens. Black Lives Matter became one of the most prominent protesting groups to emerge from the demonstrations.
Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said Pantaleo’s firing was necessary to heal the harm caused by Garner’s death.
“Yes, it is a step forward and an important one because it signals that as in other cases when police do things that are wrong that they must be held accountable,” Garza said in a MSNBC interview.
Despite enormous media attention and widespread public anger over the case, Pantaleo remained on the police force, restricted to desk duty and collecting his salary of $97,000 a year, as his case wound through a protracted legal maze.
And while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, came under withering criticism for seemingly doing little to charge or fire Pantaleo, the decision to terminate a police officer rests exclusively with the police commissioner.
In the meantime, community activists around the world continued to call for Pantaleo’s firing and to demand justice for Garner and his family. Justice seemed to inch closer to reality two weeks ago, following a two-month disciplinary trial that led to Maldonado’s recommendation to the police commission that Pantaleo be fired.
“It seems like a no-brainer and it seems long overdue that should have happened within weeks or months of the incident,” Nadette Stasa said during an interview with the New York television station in reaction to the judge’s recommendation.
Stasa, who works near the spot where Garner died, called the incident “a real tragedy” and expressed doubt that justice would ever be served for the dead man’s family.
In all likelihood, Pantaleo’s firing doesn’t close the book on this issue, since his lawyer, Stuart London, told reporters he would probably challenge the decision in court. Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch had urged O’Neill to stand with the officer and not fire him.
But O’Neill said he couldn’t do that, given the set of facts he was presented.
“In carrying out the court’s verdict in this case, I take no pleasure,” he said. “I know that many will disagree with this decision and that is their right. There are absolutely no victors here today — not the Garner family, not the community at large, and certainly not the courageous men and women of the police department who put their own lives on the line every single day in service to the people of this great city,” O’Neill said.
“Today is a day of reckoning, but it can also be a day of reconciliation.”