NEW YORK– After five years of investigations and protests, New York City’s police commissioner on Monday fired an officer involved in the 2014 chokehold death of an unarmed man whose dying cries of “I can’t breathe” fueled a national debate over race and police use of force.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill’s announced at a midday news conference that he had fired Officer Daniel Pantaleo based on a recent recommendation of a department disciplinary judge. He said it was clear that Pantaleo “can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.”
“None of us can take back our decisions,” O’Neill said, “especially when they lead to the death of another human being.”
O’Neill has been deliberating on whether to accept a disciplinary judge’s recommendation to fire Officer Daniel Pantaleo for using a banned chokehold on Eric Garner.
The recordings led to years of protests and calls by black activists and liberal politicians for Pantaleo to lose his job. City officials had long insisted, though, they couldn’t take action until criminal investigations were complete.
A state grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in 2014. Federal authorities, however, kept a civil rights investigation open for five years before announcing last month they wouldn’t bring charges.
Pantaleo’s lawyer has insisted the officer used a reasonable amount of force and didn’t mean to hurt Garner.
New York City’s mayor has declined to say whether he believes Garner should lose his job but has been promising “justice” to the slain man’s family.
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.
Just weeks later, protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. And later in 2014, a man angry about the Garner and Brown cases shot two New York City police officers to death in their cruiser in retribution.
At a recent administrative trial at New York Police Department headquarters, Pantaleo’s lawyers argued he used an approved “seat belt” technique to subdue Garner, who refused to be handcuffed after officers accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes.
In a bystander’s video, it appeared that Pantaleo initially tried to use two approved restraint tactics on Garner, who was much larger at 6-foot-2 and about 400 pounds, but ended up wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck for about seven seconds as they struggled against a glass storefront window and fell to the sidewalk.
The footage showed Garner, who was 43 at the time, crying out, “I can’t breathe,” at least 11 times before he fell unconscious. The medical examiner’s office said a chokehold contributed to Garner’s death.
Questions about the handling of the case have dogged Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio during his long-shot run for president, with some protesters at the recent debate in Detroit chanting, “Fire Pantaleo.”