NEW YORK — The New York City police officer whose chokehold was partly blamed for Eric Garner’s death in police custody in 2014 was fired from the Police Department on Monday, ending a bitter, five-year legal battle that had cast a shadow over the nation’s largest police force and the city it protects.
Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill dismissed the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, just over two weeks after a police administrative judge found him guilty of violating a department ban on chokeholds.
Garner died July 17, 2014, after Pantaleo tackled him from behind, then, along with other officers, pressed him down on the pavement. Captured on video, the arrest and Garner’s last words — “I can’t breathe” — gave impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The case had defined the Police Department’s relationship with the public under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned for office on a promise to reverse the aggressive policing of low-level crimes — known as the “broken windows” strategy — that his predecessor had championed. The mayor had come under intense criticism for not pushing to have Pantaleo fired sooner.
Some elected officials and critics of the Police Department say those policies, which affected black and Latino neighborhoods disproportionately, are partly to blame for Garner’s death.
For many across the country, Pantaleo became a symbol of long-standing problems with how the police treat people, mostly black and Latino, suspected of low-level crimes. Garner died as he was being arrested on charges of selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island.
After Garner’s death, the Police Department scaled back the heavy enforcement of low-level crimes. But Pantaleo’s continued employment on the police force still infuriated Garner’s family and their supporters. They lobbied for the officer to be fired and stripped of his pension, and put pressure on de Blasio to make it happen.
Under the City Charter and state law, however, the decision to fire Pantaleo ultimately belonged to O’Neill, not the mayor.
A Staten Island grand jury and federal civil rights prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo, igniting protests.
Besides Pantaleo, Garner’s family has pointed out that there are at least 11 other officers who should be held accountable for their actions leading up to Garner’s death and the aftermath. Only one — Sgt. Kizzy Adonis, who was the first supervisor to arrive on the scene — faces discipline.
Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, was expected to challenge the decision in court. London and the Police Benevolent Association have long accused de Blasio of sacrificing Pantaleo to satisfy public anger that threatens the mayor’s political ambitions.
Pantaleo had been suspended without pay since Aug. 2, when a department judge, Deputy Commissioner Rosemarie Maldonado, found him guilty of reckless assault following an administrative trial at Police Headquarters.